Archives for posts with tag: Review

‘In Sheep’s Clothing’ by Martin Puryear

Space and material are prominent in Martin Puryear’s peaceful retrospective at Parasol Unit. Brunhild is an enclosed space, but nonetheless conveys openness through the broad curves of its wooden trellis structure. In Sheep’s Clothing and Big Phrygian by contrast have a very solid presence, strong in the space they occupy. In Sheep’s Clothing is hollow, I peered into the small opening and inhaled the fragrance of the pine. Many of the sculptures are wooden, and the iron works look as if they were originally carved in wood then cast. The works generally feel very organic, all handmade with respect for the materials. Puryear’s work respects and reveres craftsmanship and the natural.

‘Brunhild’ by Martin Puryear

The sculptures are motionless but there is a sense of air and movement nonetheless. Night Watch is like a section of a field, long grasses blown in the wind. The inflated shape of Brunhild suggests a breeze. Where Brunhild breathes, however, The Load tightens and encases, hard to place within the exhibition. It shares with Shackled, a heavy iron work, a recognition of human history. 

‘Shackled’ by Martin Puryear

Peacefulness is restored elsewhere with works like Cerulan, a near-perfect circle, almost meditative in its shape and colour.

‘Cerulean’ by Martin Puryear


While Happy Jack needs a bigger room to be fully appreciated, and Puryear’s prints feel hidden in the seperate gallery upstairs, the main galleries of Parasol Unit generally suit these works. It’s less like a white cube than it otherwise might have without the extension of the gallery into the green outside space. Perhaps it’s the presence of Puryear’s works – the outside is contained within them. 

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Tal R’s ‘no comment’ comment on sex shops is a reasonably attractive exhibition with no substance. The works are interesting in themselves, but the artist’s decision to paint supposedly unbiased images of sex shops he has never visited across the globe is a dead end. If Tal R is making ‘non-judgemental’ images of sex shops with no comment whatsoever then all he is doing is drawing attention to the existence of sex shops, which everybody knows exist. Thank you for your input.

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‘Allenby’ by Tal R

Ignoring the imposed artificial a-political political element of the show, the works themselves are quite interesting. Tal R’s use of pigment and rabbit skin glue, made much of in the gallery interpretation, makes for richly coloured and glittering canvases. The vibrancy lends a Vegas air to some works, such as Valencia, where a glimmering Wizard of Oz curtain and a glowing chandelier invite the viewer through a doorway at the centre of the painting. The colours are uplifting, and the only monochrome work, Pussy cat, feels very bleak in comparison to the rest.

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‘Valencia’ by Tal R

Formally, the works are varied and engaging. Some, like Allenby and House 44 have a strong sense of perspective, while others like The Pleasure and Babylon are entirely flat, emphasising the plane of the canvas. Tal R renders architectural styles with skill; you can feel the different locations of the paintings. Bar Farao expresses bright, harsh sunlight; heat radiates out of the painting. Whether it’s the Eye of Horus atop the door or just the warmth of the colours, this work feels Mediterranean. There is a strong sense of location in these works.

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‘Bar Farao’ by Tal R

Overall, the formal aspects of the paintings are far superior to the content. These works are not made more interesting by being images of sex shops. This show offers nothing in regards to any current debates around sex, gender, or respectability politics, but uses the existence of the debate to lure people in. Tal R exploits the existence of politically charged spaces and the people within them to add an element of interest to his works. Perhaps next time he should paint pubs.

I’ve always been sceptical when people say they’ve cried in art galleries, their breath literally taken away by a piece of art. I always believed it was at best an exaggeration, at worst a pretension. 

‘Fire’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


It happened to me yesterday. I walked into a room of Zeid’s glorious abstract paintings, riots of colour, peaceful and dynamic. I stood in front of Fire, 1964, and fought back tears. There is magic in this painting, the rich vibrancy of the blues, the light and depth, the texture of the scratched oil paint, the flash of red flame. It’s like a shower of sparks in a pine forest at dusk.

Next to Fire hangs Puncta Imperica (‘Sea Cave’), 1963. Rounded forms, like rocks worn away by the sea, fill the canvas in blue, orange, green, pink. Looking at this, I can smell the ocean.

Detail from ‘Untitled’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


This show took my breath away. I will always sing the praises of a smaller space – a blockbuster of 12 rooms leaves me grumpy and exhausted. Five or six rooms is enough to show Zeid’s mastery of colour. Sitting in the middle of a room of her gargantuan abstract, mosaic-like canvases is an act of meditation. Her portraits are potent, her subjects wear clothes that could be made from her canvases.

‘Self-Portrait’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


As a middle eastern woman, Zeid’s work has a different flavour and feel from most of the art available in museums and galleries. You can feel the difference radiating from the canvases. It is exciting. This is what happens when galleries move away from the white male dominance of art history. The viewer is no longer missing out, deprived of art made outside such a narrow perspective. We can see art history with the blinkers off. 

I managed to avoid most of the history modules during my Russian degree, preferring to read novels and learn about the country through its fiction. I found the Soviet Union aesthetically depressing – drab and dreary run-down buildings, all in grey and red. But the Revolution had always been thrilling to me, the promise of such radical change for the better, the promise of a utopia. I love the art that it produced. I like that when I see an exhibition of Soviet art, there are works by women on the walls, presented as artists in their own right rather than members of an imaginary art movement known as ‘women’s art’, separated from ‘proper art’.

This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution so London has been inundated with Russian exhibitions. I liked the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution: Now!’ with all its Kandinsky, Goncharova and Malevich, and I loved the Design Museum’s ‘Imagine Moscow’ for bringing to my attention the Soviet plan to build a building taller than the Empire State, topped with a 100m tall statue of Lenin. I felt something akin to grief when I found out this laughably ridiculous dream never came to fruition.

‘Angels and Airplanes’ by Natalia Goncharova

The British Library’s ‘Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ has been the most politically interesting of the three. It’s more a museum exhibition than an art show, heavy in historical documentation, including Lenin’s handwritten application for a reading pass at the BL. The variety and quantity of the documents – manifestos, diary entries, propaganda posters, maps, letters, decrees – makes clear the confusion and chaos around the Revolution. My personal myth of the glorious Revolution is shattered and I start to understand quite how frenzied and bloody it was.

The show examines mythologies at length. Stalin made serious errors in his various roles under Lenin’s leadership, but once Stalin’s leadership was underway, all his previous roles were mythologised to show him as a hero. Both the Red and White Armies perpetrated myths that they alone were defenders of the people while their opponents were bloodthirsty murderers. A particularly strong curatorial choice was to have audio recordings of diary extracts of soldiers from both the White and Red armies. Both extracts describe the brutality and violence of the other side, and it is horrible listening. A propaganda poster showed Bolshevik soldiers ransacking a village, including killing the villagers’ goose, reminiscent of a grim scene from Isaac Babel’s short stories ‘Red Army’, a copy of which was also on display.

The artworks in the show, as in revolutionary Russia, were largely restricted to propaganda posters and book illustrations, but a couple of others stood out for me. Two lithographs by Natalia Goncharova encapsulate the dichotomy of the times – her mix of angels and architecture is at once mythological and practical, hopeful and destructive. Another image that stands out is The Burial of the Victims of the Revolution by Edward Barnard Lintott. It’s a journalistic watercolour depicting an icy funeral, red flags providing the only colour against a darkening white and grey landscape. It shows the hardship of the Revolution, fighting for change on the ice.

‘Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ is a great show, offering a fairer portrayal of the moods and circumstances in Revolutionary Russia than I’m used to. By including items from other countries where people were in support of the Russian Revolution, the British Library shows Russia as part of a global whole. Communism, after all, is pointless unless it’s global. A pleasant respite from the common portrayal of Russia as isolated in its own Marxist madness. The Revolution is shown as hopeful and desperate. One Red Army soldier wrote in his diary: ‘People have only one way to go – towards the light. And the light is Communism.’

I was early to meet a friend for this little art trip, so I lurked in the bookshop. I picked up a copy of Matt Houlbrook’s ‘Queer London’. The blurb contained the following line:

He also describes how London shaped the politics of queer life; and how London was in turn shaped by the lives of queer men.

Queer men, everyone. Not queer people, or the queer community, you’ll notice. This level of erasure of queer women (hello) and non-binary folk did not instil me with great hopes for the exhibition. I was livid before I’d even got through the door.

So I went in thinking it’d be a bit shit and fall short of what the British Queer community deserve. Tate seems to be aware of how easy it is to mess up shows like this. The wall text set out a lot of boundaries and caveats – the show looks at the specific time period 1861 – 1967, the dates of the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy and the partial decriminalisation of sex between men respectively. These dates don’t refer to gay women and it was highlighted throughout the show that gay women were largely ignored by the law. This isn’t the Tate’s fault, obviously, but it irks me nonetheless. The text did contain this nice little phrase ‘this is a history punctuated by bonfires and dustbins’, which succinctly encapsulates the violence experienced by the queer community throughout history. But they’ve also claimed that there is ‘little surviving material’ for some aspects of queer life, which increased my apprehension about whose perspectives the show would platform.

Simeon Solomon’s ‘The Bride, the Bridegroom and Sad Love’ 1865

Like queer history, the show focuses mostly on gay men. Tate did well to try to show a diverse view of queer identities, including two lovers identifying as one person, and various relationships of three people or more. But it is largely a show about white cis gay men.
Diversity of experience aside, the multiplicity of feeling in queer life is shown well. Aubrey Beardsley’s uproarious, erotic and high lols drawings depicts men with massive cocks literally bigger than them. Homoeroticism, sex and humour are at the forefront of these images. Compare these to Simeon Solomon’s The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love, a devastating drawing showing the heartbreak of a homosexual entering into a heterosexual marriage, and leaving behind former lovers. There’s a richness of sexuality and emotion in the works on show.

Aubrey Beardsley ‘The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors’ 1896

Rooms 3 & 4 are nicely juxtaposed, showing two opposite sides of queerness living side by side. ‘Theatrical types’ in room 4 showcases the camp and the glam of queerness, our love of feathers and tiaras, how the theatrical arena has long been a safe space for queer people. This room, with its costumes and photographs of Vaudeville cross dressing stars, is the art historical equivalent of Pride and Drag Race.

Leaving behind the glitz and glamour, the next room, ‘Bloomsbury and Beyond’, is filled largely with images of domesticity, of afternoon tea and vases of flowers. Ethel Sands’ Tea with Sickert shows a warm domestic scene with the table laid for tea, and is hardly an explicit or erotic depiction of homosexuality. Here is the deeply mundane, sheer normality of queer life. In the words of comedian Susan Calman, it’s not all sex swings and dildos.

Ethel Sands’ ‘Tea with Sickert’ 1911-12

A blockbuster show of Queer Art in a major institution is quite something. Undoubtedly it demonstrates the relatively new openness that surrounds the LGBT+ community, and is something to be celebrated as a mark of ‘how far we’ve come’. It’s also easy to get wrong. Tate has managed OK, there are numerous portrayals of non gay-cis-white-male aspects of queerness, and Tate has addressed some shortfallings directly, such as pointing out Edward Wolfe’s racist exoticisation of his black male models, but failed entirely to reference any gay women of colour. Filling the last room with Hockney and Bacon underlined the prominence of white cis gay artists on the queer art scene. Perhaps this is why I found the show a bit dull. If the remit of the show extended past 1967 maybe Tate would not be able to hide behind history as a reason for omitting aspects of queer life.

 

I like the wetness of Maisie Cousins’ work. The sexuality is so obvious it screams at you. A wet finger enters the petals of a flower, with red flecks like menstrual blood. Viscous, clear liquid dripping off orchids. Turgid flower stems. Cousins doesn’t fuck about.

It’s also gross, with slugs crawling over boobs and ants over fruit, and a video of a millipede squirming around over roses. Bodily-fluid-esque slime mixes with snail slime. The natural grossness that exists in sex is addressed in Cousins’ photographs.

The erect stems of flowers drip with sex much more than the nudes do. A hypersexualised flower next to a natural bum is refreshing – you can see hair where hair normally grows.

The show is pretty and femme. The flowers are pink and white, the walls are bubblegum, and the floor is gold mirror – a little sexy disco grotto. I could see up my own skirt in the reflection from the floor and I spent some time trying to make my own bum mimic the massive bum print on the wall (I had the gallery to myself). I don’t know if that was what the gold mirror floor was there for but I enjoyed it.

Cousins’ work feels very cool. The show is like walking into an uber-femme zine. I am looking forward to seeing how her practice develops as trends change and I suspect she will be leading the charge.

The Caged Bird’s Song


This is a magical display. Chris Ofili has created a watercolour which has been woven into a tapestry by Dovecot Tapestry Studio. The tapestry is enormous, a triptych covering a whole wall of the exhibition space, and it’s beautiful. Ofili’s image is rich and bright, reds and oranges bleeding into blues and turquoises and purples. The left and right panels show figures drawing back theatre curtains to show a mythical, watery, tropical scene. A couple sit at the centre of the work underneath a waterfall, him serenading her on a guitar with a still ocean behind them. She’s holding a cocktail glass, into which a nymph or god in a tree pours a sparkling liquid. This heavenly cocktail waiter, it turns out, is Mario Balotelli. The adjacent room shows Ofili’s studies for his watercolour, the most magical of which are those where Balotelli rises from cocktail glasses like a genie robed in smoke. The piece is titled ‘The Caged Bird’s Song’, referring to the first part of the great Maya Angelou’s autobiography. A caged bird is depicted in the right of the work but the whole piece is musical. 


There’s a calmness in the room – I could sit in here for hours, like in the Rothko room at Tate Modern. There’s also a happiness and serenity in the tapestry, as well as a heady tropical expectation in the black storm clouds on the horizon. I’ve never been to Trinidad, where Ofili is based, but there’s a flavour of Caribbean nature in this piece. The couple are under the waterfall, so I doubt the imminent downpour will bother them. The work is so rich, I want to hear the tale of these figures and the myth of this landscape. The medium of tapestry is itself mythical – maybe Arachne wove this. This display doesn’t need a soundscape. You can hear the water through the tapestry. 

Balotelli the genie


From afar, the tapestry looks like a watercolour. The pigments bleed into each other like watered down paint, mixing with the waterfall and the sea. The level of skill in this piece is phenomenal – the weavers have somehow managed to translate water into wool. 

This is a tapestry not a watercolour – how

CN/TW: Mention of rape

Picasso by now has been the subject of endless solo shows, you can’t really give him a retrospective – you have to find a theme in his work. This exhibition was a close reading of the Spanish artist’s work on bulls, bullfighting, and the myth of the Minotaur. The show purportedly examines the following Picasso quote: “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.”

Commercial galleries like Gagosian don’t tend to have interpretations on the walls explaining or discussing the works like the national institutions do, so in this case it is up to the press release and the viewer (hello) to connect Picasso’s life to the myth of the Minotaur through this selection of works. This quote isn’t sufficient to fully describe the themes of Picasso’s Minotaur work – the exhibition doesn’t reflect the sense of journeying that his words convey. I think the exhibition also needs to be read alongside Picasso’s famously complex (shit) attitude towards women: “For me,” he told his mistress in 1943, “there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

The bull and the Minotaur clearly represent male sexuality and virility, nicely demonstrated in Faune Priape, 1957, a little sculpture of a man/bull with a massive boner approximately the size of the figure’s torso (I wish I could pop a photo here because  it was high lols but they were very strict on the no photography rule). Unusually for any art exhibition there was a lot more male than female nudity, and by ‘male nudity’ I mean copious amounts of aggressively huge dicks and bull testicles.

fig. 1 Pablo Picasso

La femme torero, 1934

The heterosexual masculinity of Picasso’s work plays out in opposition to femininity. There are two female ‘types’ in this show that correspond with two ‘types’ of masculinity. Mostly, the man is the Minotaur, all macho violent strength, and the woman is at best object, at worst victim. There are reams of rapes, women with their heads thrown back and their eyes rolling. Even in the works that depict consensual sex, the woman is lying back, being done – the Minotaur is active and the woman is passive. Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme, 1937, could show a Minotaur saving a woman from drowning – he’s carrying a limp female form from the sea into the safety of a boat  – but this surely refers to the myth of Europa, ‘seduced’ (read: raped) by Zeus disguised as a bull. As much as the bull head in this work appears impassive and non-violent, Picasso has made sure to depict the figure’s balls at almost the centre of the work, so there is no avoiding the reference to sexuality.  My copy of Ovid (Raeburn’s translation if  anyone wants to check) describes Europa as a ‘frightened prize’ – this is a rape as much as Picasso’s more overtly violent Minotaur series. FYI Zeus’s bull became the constellation Taurus – the most enduring vision of a bull that we have in Europe is a by-product of a rape. La femme torero, 1934, is another example – the woman Matador is thrown backwards by the bull, penetrated by the bull’s horn (probably a penis metaphor as usual), and she is carried off on the bull’s back, just like Europa. Picasso’s violent bull exists in partnership with his view of a woman as ‘doormat’, as object.

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Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938

There’s a rare glimpse of woman as Goddess in Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938. There’s no macho masculinity in the dancing faun, dancing or curtsying in front of a nymph who sits on a throne, wearing a hat that is like a crown. She holds an anchor and looks unimpressed. The second faun is non-threatening, sat quietly in the background with clasped hands. There is a noticeable lack of dick in this work, and therefore a lack of male sexuality. But then, a faun is not a Minotaur – he’s half goat, not half bull. Maybe faced with a Minotaur, with Picasso’s vision of masculinity, this imperial nymph would not remain so composed.

There are a couple of instances of masculine vulnerability in this show. A winged bull in le chaval aile, 1948, stands with his guts spilling out of a hole in his belly, surrounded by three enormous black vultures. The dying bull stands strong and upright, genitals enormous and prominent as usual. In barque de naiades et faune blesse, 1937, a faun slumps on a shore, arrow piercing his torso, with a boatful of women sailing past without assisting. There’s pain, and maybe fear in his face. Again, though, he isn’t a Minotaur. Femininity can only have power in these works when masculinity is lacking – nymphs can sail past a dying faun, but women must be subjected to the will of the Minotaur.

In minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette, 1934-5, a blind Minotaur is guided through the night by a little girl holding a dove. The Minotaur howls in pain at the starry sky, and three sailors watch from the sides of the work. There’s a Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes quality to this piece, with its strong shading and assorted cast of characters. It’s quite a theatrical work, the stars and sea look almost like a painted backdrop to the figures. This is the only work in the show that depicts a vulnerable Minotaur, and the girl is the only non Goddess/Doormat female.

For all that I’m not a fan of these views on masculinity and femininity, I loved this show. I love anything mythical and Picasso is generally a delight. The works are absolutely beautiful, my favourite being minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette for its nighttime theatricality. There were a couple of works that seemed a bit out of place (paintings with no Minotaurs or Matadors involved), but the show as a whole was beautiful. There are some examples of Picasso’s ceramics, and I think there’s a lightheartedness in these – wouldn’t it be jokes to eat your breakfast from a plate decorated with bull genitals? – which makes the exhibition a little less serious. It’s a nice warm up for Tate’s blockbuster Picasso show coming up in 2018. I’ll probably be going back.

17 works by women photographers lent by the National Museum of Women in the Arts reflect the diverse, complex, and often shared experience of women worldwide.

Lying on a bed in a green dress, staring at the viewer with twirled hair styled and placed in a halo around her head, Daniela Rossell’s ‘Medusa’ is a better, more substantial precursor to Kendall Jenner’s most liked instagram pic. There is power here, and vulnerability and intimacy which, shockingly, is not present on Kendall’s gram.
Hellen van Meene’s photographs are like illustrations for a book of fairy tales. The text described them as looking natural but actually planned meticulously. To me they do look painstakingly curated and posed. To me there is nothing natural about the props and scenarios. Each subject seems to have an unclear but definite story – one girl is a bubblegum princess in a tower, another girl dead from a curse, a third girl blows magic dust to cast her spell. In this exhibition on the female body and the female gaze the fairytale element is unsurprising – fairytale women have very definite roles set out for them. Here there is some discussion of how real girls and women feel – bubblegum princess is bored, and the girl clutching the feather heart looks more angry and sad than happily in love.

Nan Goldin’s ‘Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC’ has a melancholy intimacy about it. Partially clad on a bed in a rosy dawn or dusk light, this could be a romantic, post-coital scene, but the back to back figures seem to hold something from one another. Their tension and frustration is in contrast to Brian’s upfront sexuality that can be glimpsed in the photograph of him, cigarette dangling from lips, pinned in the top right corner of the work. This is an honest snapshot of a moment in relationship, and an almost universal experience.

It’s always a pleasant relief to see images of women through the eyes of women. Interestingly, there were no nudes in this exhibition – these were women’s and girls’ bodies without the sexualised male gaze. That’s not to say the women depicted were devoid of sexuality, rather that these women are more than simply sexual. There was an intimacy present in many of these photographs; the viewer is often invited into a bedroom, again not so much a sexual as a private place. But there were also grand scenes, such as Marina Abramovic as a peace warrior on a white stallion. Women can be everything, and there was a little bit of everything in these photographs.

Rachel MacLean’s video and print study of social media and all its darkness is a glorious madness. Emoji-yellow Data presides as queen in a post-apocalyptic world, while her plague ridden devotees wait endlessly for her next upload. Ratty, wire-chewing trolls hack her and literally shit all over her feed. It’s not subtle, and it’s brilliant. 

The video installation was funny, gross, and completely disturbing. The scene where hacked Data masturbates using a touch screen while Scam fists her until she bleeds is a gory but accurate allegory for the self indulgence of the internet and the often unrecognised violence prevalent in online behaviour. 

I’m not sure what the printed images added to the installation, other than behaving like adverts for the film, and ironically they made a great Instagram snap. They fitted well but I can’t yet put my finger on why. 

The juvenile and sterile colour scheme of pink, yellow and blue lent an additional discomfort to the whole room – painted like a nursery, but with a sign outside warning parents not to bring their children inside. 

Video and edited photography are the perfect media to explore the phenomena of social media. The sickly brightness and a Disney-esque song sequence fit perfectly around the reference to the sinister, dark side to social media underneath all the airbrushed perfection. The artificial sweetness of the installation made it more palatable; it was bleak but funny. It didn’t offer any solutions – and why should it – but it was a clever addition to the contemporary debate around the safety and trajectory of the internet, while being a jokes way to spend a Saturday afternoon.