Archive

Tag Archives: gallery

Last week, in the middle of Kentish Town, I could have sworn I was in in Egypt. Or Morocco. Or even Norfolk. Nevertheless, I was in the sun; albeit that reflected sun, which refracts like a kaleidoscope, emanating a patchwork of bold colour from the paintings of Birkin Haward. In the tiny Beardsmore Gallery, on what is, currently, a guaranteed rainy day, I gazed at these pieces as if seeing a glimpse of technicolor Oz from the grey of Kansas.

Salthouse Heath, Red Tarpaulin 290111 acrylic

Tilbury Power Station from Gun Hill 210212 acrylic

I feel lucky to be able to say I have worked with Birkin. Both artist and architect, he is outstandingly accomplished in each field. When I joined van Heyningen and Haward (the architectural practice Birkin founded in 1983 with wife Jo van Heyningen) in 2008, I was instantly aware of his artistic talents – his hand-drawn perspectives alone are legendary in the architecture world. However I was not privy to his personal artworks until summer 2010 when I assisted him in producing some prints for his exhibition at Salthouse Church in Norfolk. One look and I was hooked. I took the family up to see the exhibition, was warmly welcomed into the family home by Birkin and stunned by the atmospheric monochrome pieces hung in Salthouse church, most of which were markedly different to the current exhibition.

Old sea defences Happisburgh 2010 Charcoal

The contrast between the two styles of painting can in some part be attributed to his recent change of circumstance. In 2009 Birkin moved away from architecture to become a full-time artist; still keeping links with the architecture world by working as a consultant, but primarily focusing on developing his craft and producing exhibitions. This change has resulted in a subtle shift in style, infused with the ethos of Mondrian, Rothko and a pinch of Cezanne. These bold, dramatic statements move me in a different way to the Salthouse pieces.

Sizewell Beach – White Hut, 2011 acrylic on canvas

The traditional Birkin style is of course always there as the framework; his striking gift is the ability to create a scene and evoke the accompanying emotion from mere suggestion. Line and tone are intimately explored to draw out their capacities and fulfill their ultimate potential. Birkin can see how these pieces, elements of a whole, can be pared down to the most dramatic to create almost just a clue, for us the viewer to decipher: the fence designating the line of the field, the gradual shift in tonal range of an approaching storm. He sees it inherently.

Morston Harbour 111111 acrylic

The evocative nature of his pieces was most evident in pieces such as storm at sea. You get the sense that, in the manner of Turner, he  sat and created this picture right there, in front of that storm. As if he had been amongst that melee of the elements, had felt them overwhelm the landscape with their old magic and deep power.

Storm at sea 1 2009 Charcoal

In contrast, his newer works are less a record of a place and more an interpretation. A translation of scene through unique artistic vernacular and sense experience. Their joie de vivre bursts through the confines of the canvas and inhabits the room. Since moving away from the limitation and stress of the office, Birkin has been freer to travel. To expand his aesthetic language beyond the sometimes rough and raw Norfolk setting in which he grew up and to invoke the hue and light of foreign isles. The result is a juxtaposition of colour and abstraction of view through glorious and celebratory geometrical compositions. Even brooding Norfolk is awash with sunshine, reflected, as it is on the viewer, onto the formerly brittle scenery from climates afar.

Military Post Red Pyramid dashur 130312 acrylic

His father (Birkin Haward Sr.) was also an architect and artist and it is clear that creativity is imbued in Birkin to his very core. His skill in deciphering and analysing spaces and forms runs through both his artistic and architectural work; by inserting and interpreting, he conveys something entirely his own. What is certain is that there is plenty still to come. Birkin has certainly not yet finished making his mark.

Human beings thrive on arts and culture.This is evidenced not only by the huge swathes of visitors to museums and art galleries every day (Tate Modern counted nearly 4,000 visitors per day for the 2011 Gaugin show), but also by the abundance of organisations and activities related to the arts. If you attempt to type in to a search engine some vague term such as ‘arts uk’, you are immediately bombarded with millions of links to the seemingly infinite facets of the arts industry; theatre, dance, fine art, to name just the most obvious. So with all this huge wealth of resources in the arts surely our kids have more than they need in the way of access to them. Not so. A recent UNICEF report showed that, unsurprisingly, ‘in the UK inequality was…seen in access to outdoor, sporting and creative activities, with poorer children spending more sedentary time in front of screens whilst the more affluent had access to a wide range of sports and other pursuits’, and a new report by the Children’s Society shows that half a million children in Britain are unhappy with their lives.

Some of this must be a direct result of the elitist tradition of arts and culture for the upper classes which still abounds in the UK, perpetuated by rising costs of attendance and lowered wages, which completely prices out a whole chunk of society who couldn’t possibly afford to spend £60 on a ticket to the Opera. And what of your average west end show? You’re still looking at around £20-30 per ticket. More affordable for the so called ‘squeezed middle’ but still out of reach for the average family, except perhaps as an irregular treat. No wonder then that cultural activities such as these are seen as being ‘for posh people’ or ‘for university bods’. Having grown up in a working class town on a council estate, these are genuine descriptions I still hear regularly from both adults and children, which is depressing in its self-defeatism. Any one of the people on that estate could enjoy a gallery or theatre show just as much as a ‘uni bod’ if they could go with an open mind and the self confidence that comes with knowing these things are there for THEM. Cultural public ownership often doesn’t feel as if it includes the working classes.

With these entitlement attitudes being cyclically ingrained in kids at home and the government demonising the working class even more than usual, through a constant barrage of recession-approved negative association (welfare – they don’t deserve it, jobs – they can’t be bothered, health – they can pay for it themselves etc.) the middle and upper classes dominate the market almost entirely. This attitude has to be changed and to do that, prices need to drop to a reasonable level, as well as provision of far more free outreach workshops which take the theatre out of the west end and encourage parents and children to get involved. It is do-able if the funding were there. It’s investment in our children, and you’d think we’d jump at the idea. But this brings us squarely to the general British attitude towards children and childhood. To be blunt we just don’t respect it. This attitude leaches into the top echelons of many arts organisations, where children appear to be an afterthought. I’m not saying people don’t care, or that they don’t do their best; in fact I’m generalising in a big way, but I’m talking more about an overarching attitude and social manner. Our modern family zeitgeist, if you like. Capitalism and major corporative influence of a level never seen before, sees us now buying into the commercialisation of our own children, then feigning ironic surprise when they riot angrily and prioritise free clothes and shoes. The arts have been proven to have a beneficial effect on cognitive development, so why are we allowing this aspect of childhood experience to be pushed aside by a Gove-led education system concerned only with academic league tables and in churning out future business graduates from business-run Academies expected to ‘save the failing system’? We need to mobilise.

Action for Children’s Arts, a lobbying and campaigning arts charity for whom I volunteer, recently sent Freedom of Information requests to 20 major arts organisations in the UK, asking them what percentage of their annual budget was spent on producing work for children. The results were shocking. Children under 12 make up 15% of the population and yet rarely more than 1% of any organisation’s budget was spent on them alone. We should, in fact, be spending more than the technical 15% on them – like I say, investing in their and our futures. But as well as not being bestowed with extra, they are refused even their fair share. 1% funding for our children is a disgracefully poor representation of our public arts industry. ACA held a conference on 19th June to discuss how we can work together to change this. The conference was insightful and full of optimism for future policy reform, both within the government itself and individual organisations such as the BBC and the Arts Council, among others. We are continuing to discuss and gather ideas, via twitter and on the website, to inform a discussion group in the pipeline, whereby we aim for the outcome of a solid action plan and potential children’s arts charter.

      

Let us not forget how many organisations there are who do provide arts services for children and work tirelessly to keep our children’s imagination filled with fun and play and wondrous things: Unicorn Theatre, Polka Theatre5x5x5=creativity and Imaginate to name but a very very few. However, children as a whole section of society are underrepresented in the arts and are too often lumped into ‘families’ groups whereby an adult event is deemed suitable for children rather than being devised with children in mind.

The number of arts facilities provided just for children does in no way represent their percentage numbers in society and this fact alone does them a great injustice. It’s about time we started making children our priority, the future of this country. It’s about time we started taking responsibility for the fact that they feel angry and undervalued and not lazily blame the parents, but blame the culture. When art becomes truly art for all, for the whole of society, we will have achieved our goal. Until then, join us in fighting for an undeniable right for our children, the right to have access to the arts.

To join Action for Children’s Arts or to find out more about what we do and how we do it, see our website www.childrensarts.org.uk

The Artist and his Model 1919-21

It is rare that an artist can transform a space such as the galleries at Tate Modern; rarer still to transform you, within it, into an entirely different state of mind; and even rarer to achieve these with purely 2D media. But Edvard Munch, along with the curators at Tate, has done just that.

The new Munch retrospective opened last week, following the extremely opportune timing of The Scream 1893 auctioning, which propelled the painter to the forefront of current public interest. Not that Munch has ever really been forgotten; The Scream is endlessly parodied across all art forms. It is a shame though to think of the many disappointed faces when they realise that neither the scream is on show, nor the Madonna 1894-5, another classic Munch. However I feel quite sure that any initial frozen smiles will soon melt to real furrowed brows of concentration and absorption as visitors get whisked away into Munch’s dreamlike world.

Initially, in this William Blake-esque setting, where pronounced yet unstable verticals abound and focus refuses to submit to standard optics, you feel somewhat comfortable; as if a traveller in a pastoral narrative. Then you notice that the couple you spotted kissing tenderly is named Vampyr 1893-4, and the mother and child sharing an embrace is titled The Sick Child 1885-7. As if in a dream, comfort and menace intertwine; contrasting versions of works are displayed facing one another with you suspended in the middle, caught up in a fundamental struggle which permeates the rest of the paintings.

Vampire 1893-4

The Sick Child 1885-7

One of the most fascinating elements of this show is the photographic experimentation and documentation of Munch’s interest in the new pioneering visual machines. Photography was relatively new at the time; Kodak had developed the first mass-marketed camera in 1901 – the Brownie. The sometimes transcendental effect of the photographs, created through over-exposure and double negatives, tied in with Munch’s own curiosity about spirituality as well as giving him an outlet for self-reflection. Munch dealt with an inner struggle, a fact which is well-documented due to his breakdown in later life, and threads of these issues do seem to shine through in his work. Looking through his photographs I felt a sudden concern that these images felt inherently personal. Much like the public/private battle of Gillian Wearing, I was torn between the fascination of voyeuristic intrigue and the moral inhibition around questions of personal privacy. Did Munch want these to be on show? Some show him in strange poses, and even naked; were they intended for public consumption or were they an intimate exploration of self?

Rosa Meissner at the Hotel Rohn in Warnemunde 1907

Self-portrait on Warnemünde beach 1907

One theme which repeats throughout his paintings is that of the outward gaze. I call it a gaze, when what I really mean is a stare. Often threatening, sometimes unsettling, but usually menacing. Rarely does a figure smile at the viewer from the canvas. Paintings such as Workers on their way home ’13-14 portray frightening and aggressive stances towards the viewer. Was this how Munch saw the world? Are we the figure in the painting or is he? This motif continues in The Artist and his Model ’19-21, Murder on the Road ’19 and Red Virginia Creeper ’88-89 and creates an unsettling tension between viewer and painting. In Street in Asgardstrand ’01, the figure is there, albeit not so seemingly malevolent; but its very situation and directness still set the viewer on edge. In the background, roads and pathways regularly appear, perhaps signifying ways to escape from his own state of mind. A group of people are often nearer to the path, but the solitary figure in the foreground remains, fixed and looking out from the frame; the way is there, but only in the peripheral.

Murder on the road 1919

Red Virginia Creeper 1888-9

Street in Asgardstrand 1901

Throughout the exhibition I felt the overwhelming sense of an artist ahead of his time. Despite the obvious influence of the Impressionist movement on his work, with its veritable myriad of conspicuous brushstrokes and deep variation of tone and colour, Munch’s ability to communicate tension through style and medium is sometimes reminiscent of very modern day artists. In Self-Portrait Facing Left ’12-13, he uses woodcutting to create a representation of self-image through a series of disconcertingly violent scratches. The composition of the piece I found reminiscent of Francis Bacon, creating form and raw emotion with fast movements. No wonder they named him an Expressionist. His Kiss in the Fields ’43 is intrinsically minimalist; the natural texture and grain of the wood contrasting against the sharp, imposed scoring of the suggested coupling. This piece could sit quite inconspicuously in a modern art gallery. Another of his pieces which could easily blend into not just a gallery, but a specific exhibition, is Yellow Log ’12. Anyone who saw the recent David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy could not fail to spot the extreme similarity between this motif and Hockney’s newer works; the comparisons are there in colour, form, style and technique.

Kiss in the fields 1943

The Yellow Log 1912

I hope that both Hockney and Bacon, as well as many other artists, would happily admit their debt to this great painter (Hockney for one could hardly deny it). His skill in conveying memories and emotions as almost lost in that moment between dream and wake; his ability to pick out the sharp points in those hazes, whilst still rendering the featureless forms in the background with inherent purpose. Towards the end of his life these nightmarish scenarios became reality for a period during his breakdown, in this period his paintings became less concerned with faceless shadows in the peripheral and more of a confrontation with solitary mortality. His work continues to fascinate us, and not just because he provides an insight into mental illness, but because we recognise his universal struggle with the human condition.

Sitting on the bus in traditional Central London traffic, I mused upon my recent visit to the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain and tried to decipher what had transpired to be a distinctly underwhelming experience. I already knew of course; I had been feeling it build as I walked around, like a volcano preparing to erupt situated deep in my soul. I was filled with frustration and annoyance at the disjointed narrative portrayed through the curatorial choices. The exhibition has been laid out as a study of Picasso in relation to other artists and historical context. In principle, as an art history student, you would think this is completely up my street. Seemingly not so.

Whilst walking around the show I had a strong sense of emotive deja vu and was struck by the realisation that this exasperated sensation was not a new one. Indeed, I felt like this throughout much of my degree course. A word of warning for those preparing to step into the art historical world – being interested in art and interested in history does not necessarily mean you will be at all interested in art history. For me personally, my flame of interest was extinguished when a large proportion of the subject began to revolve around collectors, collecting habits and the so-called connoisseurs and critics; tales of rich aristocrats spending their limitless stash of spare money on new art to show off to their peers and the celebrated elitism of a select few who really know what art is about . As someone of socialist values I found the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, the Picasso exhibition revived my distaste for this capitalist academia and it did rather put me off. To make matters worse the text was not only captioned for the room summary but also for each individual image and I was heartily encouraged to hire an audio guide – thankfully I had the insight to decline. Had I not, I do believe my brain may have exploded on a white minimalist wall somewhere between Bacon and Moore, through sheer insipid fact overload. I do realise a good many people will disagree with me on this. In fact, everyone at the Tate seemed blissfully submerged in their audio-guided universes as I gaped, incredulous, at their baffling zen-like calm.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the exhibition at all. I found the links with other well-known artists, often significantly different to Picasso in style, quite engaging and was not aware of many of the connections beforehand. However, I think one room would have sufficed to explore this point. From Picasso to Duncan Grant to Ben Nicholson to Francis Bacon to Henry Moore (and others), all the while referencing back to Picasso in fits and starts, resulted in a decidedly stilted journey through British art history. On the other hand it was intriguing to see how Picasso experimented with and played with different styles, often in relation to contemporaries he admired; never before had I seen Flowers ‘1901, an unusual foray into Impressionism.

Flowers 1901

Of the Picassos on display, three in particular shone through the dreary narrative and proved yet again what an astounding communicator of emotion he is; The Frugal Meal ‘1904, Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32, and Weeping Woman ’37, (which, once viewed, usually turns me into just that). The frugal meal is a beautiful and understated etching, the restraint of colour and medium mirroring the sparsity of the situation depicted – a poor and starving couple with only a small piece of bread to eat. The form of the figures echo works from his blue period such as The Blind Man’s Meal ‘1904 and Old Man with Guitar ’93.

The Frugal Meal 1904

The Blind Mans Meal 1903

Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32 is at first glance a total contrast to this, however the two pieces both utlise Picasso’s ability to convey high emotion through form, structure and colour (or lack of it). Sweeping curves and pastel shades speak to me of sexuality, fertility and femininity, channelling the African influences often favoured by Picasso, and could be seen to represent the womb, the life cycle and the moon. It is an astounding piece which still looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw Weeping Woman ’37 I accidentally stumbled across it whilst coming around a corner in a small gallery and was metaphorically floored by its impact. Picasso has used his unique device of depicting a viewpoint from many angles to maximum effect in this piece. The juxtaposition of different perspectives create the illusion that the piece is moving; the woman looks to me as if she is actually weeping in front of our eyes. The force of the painting is intensified through the sharp angles and almost garish colours, which convey extreme, mixed emotion and grieving hysteria. The painting bleeds anguish.

Nude Woman in Red Armchair 1932

Weeping Woman 1937

If you had a desire to categorise them, I’m sure there are infinite gradations of art lover types, but for this exhibition it seems prudent to pinpoint just two. Neither is better or worse than the other, just different. The first likes to understand the context and background to a piece; what the artist meant, what they were experiencing. The history and life of the work since its creation has primary significance and interest to them and having this knowledge serves to enhance their experience of the artwork. The second, in contrast, create stories and feelings in their mind as they take in works of art. By using the artwork as a starting point, the end point is wherever they want it to be. The thoughts, feelings and intentions of the artist sometimes matter and sometimes not. They define the work according to how and if it touches them and to define it by the opinions of another person, critic or artist, is to lose all joy from its observation. I know for sure now that I am one of the latter. Which are you?

It’s 2012. It’s nearly Summer (supposedly). You’re bored of going to see artworks by ultra-famous artists in a silent, sterile gallery setting. What to do? Go to some smaller, less restrictive galleries? Search out some local artists? Get your supplies out and start creating some tantalising guerrilla art in the South Kensington underpass? All good plans, although the third may earn you some extra time in another very different confined space, so maybe drop that one off your list.

What about…an art fair? No I’m not talking about your local craft-style fair, with trestle tables leading dizzyingly into the horizon and a small town’s worth of kids legging it full speed to the bouncy castle – although they can be great too.  I’m talking about art fairs such as Frieze, which I had my first experience of in October last year.  Frieze is a contemporary art fair which showcases the latest works being sold by top galleries. It is essentially a commercial enterprise, a fact unbeknownst to me, a mere mortal, as I wandered through. Obviously no prices are displayed or catalogues given out to point out that I could, very much theoretically, buy these works. The gallery owners can smell the money (or in my case, lack of it) and I was therefore left happily alone to wander around. For hours. And hours. And hours. The place is immense. I had just begun to go the art equivalent of snow-blind when I decided it might be time to sit down and stare at the floor for a while to give my synapses a chance to regenerate.

    

I might sound as if I’m being negative about Frieze; I’m actually not. I just felt it was beyond me. It didn’t feel designed for me. For a start the focus was on galleries. I’m interested in Art. Less so in its commercial value, its collectability etc. The business side of art is to me a sad necessity. It’s the death of a bee after its sting. It’s the parent that sends their child to a school 2 hours away to get them a good education. It’s a shame, but what’s the alternative? I don’t have an answer to that. The fact that Frieze is set out by gallery is a pretty clear indicator that a lot of people visiting will know where they’re going and will have a plan of action. I didn’t. Hence the snow-blind episode. However, on the positive side the gallery format actually means that you see an eclectic array of artworks by some very different artists. It gives you a sliver of insight into what’s ‘in vogue’ for the art-producing international elite. I found it interesting to see a focus on mirrored/shiny surfaces used as canvas. Ceramic tiles, black mirrors, standard mirrors, reflective metals; some painted, some manipulated, some used as a sculptural base. Fabrics were also a strong theme, and popular with the public too, judging by the crowds loitering by certain pieces.

      

  

I’m soon to try out another event, taking place on May 10th – 13th. The Other Art Fair is a new concept whereby the artists shown are unrepresented ie. they are not being shown by a gallery but by themselves. I must say this approach is more appealing to my liberal values than that of the traditional gallery sale. The pieces are affordable, even for me, at £50 upwards, although this in itself is not revolutionary. Throughout the year the Affordable Art Fair weaves its way across the world selling works costing up to a maximum of £4000. The London leg of the AAF at Battersea takes place 25-28 Oct 2012 which is…hmmm let me see, 2 weeks after the Frieze show. Coincidence? I imagine not. Whet our whistles with the big stuff, let us be all weepy and disappointed that we fell in love but were just not rich enough to make the cut. Then swoop in with the revelation that we can have some beautiful art, that there is a show made just for us. The galleries still get their pounds (albeit a little less) to top up their coffers, and we go away grinning with our new acquisition to show off to Janet next door. Clever marketing team.

At least with The Other Art Fair you’re buying from the source. Only for the moment of course, they don’t make any secret of the fact that these newbies will be signed by a gallery at some point, but for the moment they are still ours, we still matter to them. The passing over of their work to someone else has not yet taken on it’s full business-like format and still has an element of emotion and attachment. I hope to see an artist clinging to their sculpture screaming ‘No! I won’t let you take it! It doesn’t belong with you! You don’t understand it!. That’s the vibe I’m going for. I hope it lives up to my expectations…

NB. I’m afraid when I visited Frieze I didn’t know I would be doing this blog and so i didn’t make a note of all the artist’s names when browsing. If you have a burning desire to know who they are by, I’m sure you could email Frieze a copy of the picture and ask, or buy a copy of the catalogue. Worth a try.