Days out

Nash and Rauschenberg exhibitions fascinating contrast for day out

A trip to London meant a chance to catch up on two exhibitions which began last year and are worth seeing before they end in the next couple of months. Coincidentally the ones that caught my eye are at both the Tates.

At Tate Britain, there’s a large Paul Nash exhibition. Nash, who lived from 1889-1946, was involved in various artistic groupings in the 1930s and a leading figure in British surrealism, though his war paintings were what I knew him for, and after seeing the exhibition still seem to be his most powerful works.

Early works such as The Pyramid in the Sea and Night Landscape saw him influenced by the symbolists and exploring dream-like, often moonlit landscapes.

His First World War paintings and his own experiences made his works bigger, bolder and more dramatically coloured. We Are Making A New World from 1918 has a brave sun peeking over blood-red mountains, a churned up foreground and trees with only the trunks remaining. Ypres Salient at Night is a geometric painting, with light flooding from a sky alight with explosions. The Menin Road has a landscape of destroyed trees, toxic pools of water, a few struggling figures, smoke and light flooding through the devastated sky in straight lines. Spring in the Trenches, Wood Hill 1917 depicts new growth and sun shining over soldiers stuck in a trench. In these paintings dramatic colours not true to life and angular shapes are stunning and spectacular.

After the war, Nash became obsessed with certain places, such as Dymchurch, where he painted The Shore as long straight concrete lines, huge patches of yellow sand and a floaty sky. Other works included still lifes, such as Dead Spring, a plant’s dying greenery soft and twirling against harsh straight lines in the background.

Later works included compositions of objects such as driftwood and stones, and then landscape paintings including objects such as the Avebury stones, or objects representing them.

The Second World War brought along starkness to his work again, including Totes Meer (Dead Sea), inspired by the piles of metal from crashed planes he saw at the Cowley Dump in Oxford, making it into a new shiny sea full of waves.

His final paintings were a return to landscapes involving the moon or sun, and flowers in the sky as precursors of death. It’s a fascinating exhibition and if like me you knew Nash mainly for his war paintings its eye opening.

At Tate Modern, the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition couldn’t be more of a contrast. The artist lived from 1925-2008, and began his career in the 1950s. He came from Texas and only went to an art gallery for the first time after being drafted into the navy.

His first works included a car tyre coated in paint driven over a long strip of paper. Works developed into paintings incorporating found items, and then larger free-standing collages and some works he created live on stage.

There is also the infamous stuffed goad he acquired, and was initially unsure how to evolve it into an art work; eventually it became wrapped in a tyre and stood over a painting. Another work shows a single bed, sheet pulled enticingly back, but the whole coated in paint.

He also worked across art forms, creating sets for more than a decade for the Merce Cunningham dance group, who performed to compositions by John Cage.

Later works included silkscreens consisting of photos enlarged on to canvas, including the recently assassinated President Kennedy, and images from space, science and sport. Another departure was to create Mud Muse, a large tank of clay and water which pops and bubbles as air is released.

Later works took on a political hue, involving influences from countries with repressive governments, and also sculptures made from discarded scarp metal from his home state of Texas, then suffering after an oil crisis.

It’s a hugely varied exhibition and again a learning experience for someone only familiar with a few aspects of his work.

* Nash at Tate Britain continues until March 5, and Rauschenberg at Tate Modern until April 2.

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The New Art Gallery has a trio of great reasons to visit now

The Garman Ryan Collection at The New Art Gallery in Walsall means it’s always worth a visit, but the temporary exhibitions on at the moment make now an extra good time to go.

The Humble Vessel on the top floor looks at the symbol of the simple boat as depicted by various artists through time, and made relevant now by sights of refugees fleeing so often by boat.

It includes a newly-commissioned work by Pakistani artist Fazal Rizvi, a three-screen video installation of what looks like a small fishing boat from anywhere in the world bobbing about on the water. There are concrete boats which will be going nowhere, by Bob and Roberta Smith, and in an 1873 painting by Jules-Ėmile Saintin a woman in black looks sadly out to sea, a reminder that the waters have often taken lives.

Eric Ravilious’s Storm is a wonderfully blowy, colourful work, and there are other appealing depictions of boats and harbours from the past century. The exhibition ends on July 24, but is worth toiling up to the top floor to visit.

The more recently opened Land, Sea and Air takes as its starting point artists who have used maps as their source material. The exhibition brings together works by seven international artists using maps in very different ways.

You can get pleasantly lost in Frank Bowling’s huge colourful Map Paintings, made between 1967-71 – if you step back parts of the world can be seen through the vivid and attractive colours.

Cornelia Parker’s works show a series of London street maps with burns in them from a meteorite which came down in Namibia in 1836, which has been heated and then burnt over the various locations.

Tiffany Chung’s mixed installation includes photography, a map on the wall showing a timeline, and pieces from history to tell the story of her father, shot down in a mission during the Vietnam war and held prisoner for her entire childhood. It’s a moving and intriguing work.

Shilpa Gupta’s There is No Border Here is very relevant because of recent and ongoing events. It’s a poem on the wall talking of battle, conflict and love, beautifully written in tape which reads “there is no border here”.

These are the highlights of a fascinating exhibition.

Finally, if you think you’ve seen the Garman Ryan collection enough times, think again. As part of a three-year partnership, there are interventions in the collection from the Tate. A total of 16 works from the Tate have been paired with the gallery’s own pieces, related by either artist, theme or subject matter.

It’s fascinating to wander around and read the interesting booklet which investigates the ideas behind these links. Sometimes it’s similarities in theme – there are two paintings of Suffolk with different sky scenes, by John Nash and John Constable, for example.

In other cases it’s the same artist – an oil and a watercolour landscape by Camille Pisarro, and a bronze sculture and ink drawing by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. There are also other big name artists featured – Picasso, Braque, Rodin, Modigliani, Degas, Gainsborough, Freud, Epstein, Eric Gill, and Odile Redon. One comparison puts a Bernard Leach fruit bowl from 1955 with a Solomon Islands fruit bowl from the nineteenth or twentieth century. My favourite is the huge Raoul Dufy painting of The Wheatfield from Tate paired with a much smaller Harvest Scene watercolour from Walsall.

It’s a great set of exhibitions to enjoy and explore in one building.

Look closely to find religion and sex in the suburbs in new George Shaw National Gallery show

The School of Love

The School of Love, 2015-2016, Enamel on canvas, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

Allusions to paintings by great masters, and to seedy going on in the woods, combine for a fascinating new exhibition by George Shaw.

There’s also a set of fairly surprising new works that hit you when you walk in to My Back to Nature in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery.

Fourteen charcoal drawings entitled The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model bring us a naked George in all his glory posing in the position of the stations of the cross, which he would have seen in the Catholic church of his upbringing. All the religious paintings in the National Gallery, where he has been Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist for the past two and a half years, have clearly made quite an impression, though I remember a number of (less revealing) self portraits from his youth in his exhibition at The Herbert.

They create a good, surprising, introduction to the exhibition.

The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model

The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model (10), 2015, Charcoal on paper, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

George said he found the National Gallery rooms nearly all contained scenes from woodland, women parading around and many had Jesus. So with the self-portraits, all three elements of that can be seen in this exhibition.

The paintings are a mixture of sizes, all in the usual Humbrol paint but with a move on to canvas rather than board. Thee Afternoons (Study for Drunken Silliness), The Tossed and The Lost are small works focusing on finds in the woods – abandoned colour pornographic photos, empty bottles, leaves concealing things.

A Revel Before Half-Term features a large canvas with the trees standing darkly round, cans scattered about. The Heart of the Wood shows a small circle of bricks as well as the signs of recent partying; is it the base of a fire, or some more sinister black magic practices? The trees aren’t talking.

Studies for Hanging Around are three single trees, a reference to the crosses of the Crucifixion, and another clear influence from the residency, where he said he had become obsessed with the wood on the cross. The Foot of the Tree is a wooden stump left behind and Verso and Recto are reminiscent of some of his earlier works, with muddy paths leading away. The Uncovered Cover shows a blue cloth partly covered with leaves and concealing – anything or nothing?

The Old Master

The Old Master, 2015-2016, Enamel on canvas, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

Another section of the gallery, George said at the press preview, he saw as the Adam and Eve corner.

The Old Master and The Old Country represent the male and female – or as George put it “someone’s gone into the woods and painted a cock on a tree – then there’s a very suggestive tree”. Ok ….

The graffiti is crudely and unnecessarily-added amongst the wooded scene, a reminder that it’s not in the depths of the woods but just yards from a Coventry housing estate. The tree has a deep, gaping crevice painted with care and attention.

The School of Love is a painting of an abandoned mattress, dumped and unloved now, deep in the greenery.

Another work is an unusual self-portrait – George seen from behind up close to a tree: “I’m looking at the Observer Book of Moss,” he joked. “It’s called Call of Nature – what else?”

You’ve Changed is a set of nine small paintings of trees, all different, all with holes in their trunks somewhere, or cracked open; George referred to Youtube references to men who liked sexual liaisons with trees, finding the sexual in the suburbs.

George’s three paintings in the style of Titians Diana and Actaeon works command one wall.

A tarpaulin he found in the wood, hanging like a soft, sensuous material over one tree, represents the pulled-aside curtain, and the work is called The Rude Screen, a play on the rood screen which pre-reformation separated the church congregation from the priest.

The Rude Screen

The Rude Screen, 2015-2016, Enamel on canvas, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

A hollybush stuffed full of pornographic pictures that he saw as a child – “I have no idea who put it there, it was almost like a branch of John Menzies” – was the inspiration for the painting representing the bathing beauties and is called Möcht’ ich zurücke wieder wanken . Hints of naked flesh and raised clothes can be seen on the images.

The third painting, representing the killing, is entitled Every Brush Stroke is Torn Out of My Body, and shows red paint randomly daubed on a tree, with another tree displaying a target. Again, it’s the imposition of the urban, peopled world into what is supposedly natural.

There is also a film of George at work at the gallery, talking about his influences, and visiting a wood (though unfortunately not the Tile Hill one), which is definitely worth seeing.

It’s a long time since we’ve seen a new body of work from Shaw but it’s been well worth the wait, and also made me eager to go back to some of his inspirations in the rest of the Gallery.

 

 

Great Masters and naughty goings on in the woods combine to great effect in George Shaw exhibition

The Foot of a Tree

The Foot of a Tree, 2015-2016, Enamel on canvas, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

Two and a half years spent amidst some of the best art works in the country has resulted in a stunning new exhibition for Coventry-born artist George Shaw.

George has been the National Gallery’s Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist – and the exhibition he has produced as a result shows the influence of time spent among the Old Masters, but also growing up in Coventry.

George’s paintings, which saw him nominated for the Turner Prize in 2011, focused on the urban landscapes of Tile Hill in Coventry, where he grew up, plus some of its back paths, semi-derelict garages and surrounding woods. Further works showed the remains of buildings such as pubs which have now been lost.

Here, there’s not a building in sight, but still plenty of evidence of human intervention in nature. The exhibition is called My Back to Nature, which can be read several ways, and is certainly a title George has thought about and played around with.

George

George Shaw in his studio, Photo © The National Gallery, London

At the press preview, the typically plain-speaking George talked about his first feelings at being asked to take on the residency. He said: “The initial reaction was complete mystification – how did I make the list. The second drove me to the toilet and I don’t think I have been off the toilet since.

“I spent about six months wishing I had never been asked. But I could hear a 14-year-old boy [himself] saying do it, that’s why you have been doing this for more than 30 years, or it’s been a waste. And I could hear my dad whirring round wherever he may be saying do it.

“It’s a very humbling experience, it’s like having your trousers pulled down in the shop window and you have to stay there. The bullshit of contemporary art slips away but you can’t hide behind vague theory, you have to be in the firing line.”

He shook his head, slightly in amazement still: “Setting up this exhibition, I had Velasquez staring at me – while I was pinning my drawing on the wall Velasquez was on the other side of the gallery.”

George had been a regular National Gallery visitor since he was a child. He said: “My first visit would have been when I was eight or nine years old and came down with mum and dad on the coach, walking through St James Park from Victoria, and my first stop was the National Gallery.

“My parents met in London and knew London quite well and they were aware that if you wanted to see art the National Gallery would be the place to come. We would have come here first then we would go to the newly-opened London Dungeon. I saw no distinction between the two.”

In one cabinet in the exhibition there is a drawing after a work by Piero Della Francesca, from 1984 – and when you remember George was born in 1966, then there’s the proof he’s been a long-time visitor.

He added that, like the 1970s cartoon character Mr Benn who always returned from a journey with a souvenir in his pocket, whenever he ventured away on an adventure to an art gallery, he would come home with a reminder in the shape of a drawing of a painting: “It was more I made a record of my time spent in front of the pictures. I am very aware of the anxiety of time passing, and I am aware my paintings and drawings are very about the sadness of time passing and sadness has a strong relationship with beauty. That’s where art lies, in the gap between sadness and beauty.”

In the Heart of the Wood

The Heart of the Wood, 2015-2016, Enamel on canvas, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

George says in a film showing with the exhibition that he came into work every day like the other Gallery staff, but in his case to a studio to paint. Colin Wiggins, Special Projects Curator at the National Gallery, said in the film: “He’s got this pose that he’s just a working man, doing a working man’s job.”

But this job involved studying masterpieces, and he found unlikely connections with his previous inspirations in Tile Hill. One example he cited is The Triumph of Pan by Nicolas Poussin. As strange creatures and beasts frolic semi-naked, food and drink vessels lay abandoned on the ground; not dissimilar to scenes found on weekend mornings in Tile Hill woods, he thought.

He said: “I realised that there wasn’t a room in the gallery that didn’t have a woodland in it and there wasn’t one without a lady parading round in it, and very few that didn’t have a Jesus in it.

“It seemed to be the opposite of nature, to go into the woods take your clothes off and run around being half man and half animal and have sex with anything that will come along. I thought that quite exciting. I quite enjoyed the chance of that – I missed out on it when I was young because I was painting. I was never invited to that party.

“My return to nature was where I bring everything with me.”

The Tossed

The Tossed, Enamel on canvas, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

He felt everything seemed to be happening on the outskirts of towns, in the woods, away from the culture. Along with scepticism about going back to nature to find yourself, he decided he had his back to nature – hence the exhibition’s title.

But how does he fit into the great tradition of British landscape painting, he was asked by National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi.

“I was told I don’t. I don’t find landscape painting the most exciting part of painting, I find painting Jesus Christ being tortured on the cross, or sexual activity or nudes more exciting. The big question is why don’t I do that – because I can’t.”

He said the teenage boy who didn’t get invited to the exciting parties dreamt instead of being Van Gogh or Rembrandt, and he’s still striving for that, saying about this exhibition: “My reference point was six Rembrandt self-portraits, the way he painted them was the way I wanted to paint a tree.”

The more he looked at the National Gallery works, and the woods around Tile Hill, the more he started to use elements in the landscape figuratively and physically. Three trees together started to be the three crosses at the Crucifixion, at Calvary.

The young George had always loved Titian’s Death of Actaeon at the gallery, and by the time he became Associate Artist the gallery also had Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto.

George said: “Death of Actaeon is one of the greatest paintings in the galleries and it’s one I go back and look at and it’s always impressed me on many different levels.

“I knew I wanted to deal with that subject in a way. I am drawn to the subject of the story.”

In the story, the hunter goes into the woods, finds a curtain which he pulls aside to reveal women bathing. One is Diana who turns him into a stag, and his own hounds devour him – and in the Titian painting she is seen raising a bow and arrow for good measure.

George added: “Maybe coming from Coventry the subject matter attracted me, the tradition of Lady Godiva protesting about taxes in the city and Peeping Tom has his eyes burnt out for being drawn to her.

“I went into the woods as a young man and my dad was pointing out all the finer points of flora and fauna and I was more drawn to the copies of Penthouse magazine blowing around. I thought I would come back later and get it.”

Every Brushstroke is Ripped From My Body

Every Brush Stroke is Torn Out of My Body, Enamel on canvas, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

When George ordered three canvases, 178×198 cm, Gabriele said it only meant one thing – they were the same size at the Titian works, and he was going to create his own version. A chance find to take the place of the curtain helped.

“I found a builder’s tarpaulin in the wood. When I saw it I thought are you joking me, I feel I am being set up here.”

George still paints in the Humbrol enamel paints he started using about 20 years ago, and said they become unusable very quickly “It’s very difficult. I enjoy it – I don’t know if that’s really my Catholic upbringing, if you enjoy something it must be bad.”

The paintings are created from photographs, drawings of the same scene and then he varies what is there to suit what he wants, and said by working in the National Gallery he’s been glad to get away from the feeling of his photos bullying him.

He has also tried painting on canvas for the first time. “The gesture and mark making became a little more free form, shaking off my British anal retentiveness.”

In the film also on show at the exhibition he’s seen laughingly fretting about paint running on one of the big works, then he notices more: “It’s like Zulu, they are all coming!”

Most of the painting went on at the National Gallery studio, though there was quite a lot of travel between the “Bermuda Triangle” of London, his home in Devon and Coventry, and some of the smaller paintings travelled with him to be further worked on.

He revealed: “I don’t like my work. I wouldn’t have it because I always see it may be better. When I had about six months remaining here I wanted to be around for another year because I had not made a great painting yet.”

The exhibition is on in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery until October 30 for you to judge for yourself.

The Old Country

The Old Country, 2015-2016, Enamel on canvas, © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

 

 

 

From the ruins of ancient Rome to Coventry’s conceptual artists in one packed day in London

A day trip to London for a gig always means an early start and a late night for me, and the chance to fit in a few exhibitions.

I got around five this time, and they were certainly varied.

First stop, the British Museum for Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome. Towne, who lived 1739-1816, visited Rome in 1780-81 and made a large selection of paintings of its famous landmarks and the surrounding countryside. He continued to work on them for many years afterwards, and some have clearly added extra pieces of paper on the side or bottom, with the scene continuing, or extra trees added later.

In the British Museum’s lovely cool print room with its muted lights the watercolours are lovely, delicate and somehow relaxing. However they were not really appreciated in Towne’s lifetime, though they were first displayed together in 1805; this is the second time. Towne tried several times to be admitted to the Royal Academy, but was always rejected; he was from Exeter and hated being seen as a provincial drawing teacher. Small comfort that we can now go and enjoy them and he is appreciated as a skilled watercolourist. The exhibition is on until August 14.

In the gallery leading off the print room, is Krishna in the Garden of Assam, until August 15. Subtitled the cultural context of an Indian textile, the main piece is the largest surviving example of an Assamese devotional textile, the Vrindavani Vastra.

The nine metre long cloth, made in 12 segments, is covered in detailed scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna. It was made in the late seventeenth century, but oddly found its way to the British Museum via The Times journalist Perceval Landon when he was covering the Younghusband exhibition to Tibet in 1903-4; it would be interesting to know both how it got there, and how he acquired it to bring it back.

A trip by Tube down to Tate Britain, and it’s almost from the sublime to the ridiculous. Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 is less a visual feast and more a lot of reading. However you can become part of the art; in the first room, Roelf Law’s Soul City, a pyramid of oranges, gives you a chance to change the art by taking an orange.

An excellent small leaflet given out at the exhibition explains conceptual art simply and in a way that makes sense. Longer descriptions in the galleries left me more baffled. Some conceptual artists I get. Hamish Fulton and Richard Long’s documenting of their walks with photographs and descriptions seems to make sense. Gilbert and George’s performances as The Singing Sculptures appeal and make me wish I had seen them back in 1970.

There’s quite a lot of space devoted to Art & Language, the Coventry College of Art-based group who were so important to conceptual art, but also controversial, not least in the Lanchester Polytechnic they were based in. As one piece of information tells us: “Theorising here was not subsidiary to art or an art object but the primary concern of this art.” The show includes Hot –Warm-Cool-Cold, which was on exhibition at the Herbert in 1968, and consists of 43 pieces of paper on the wall, apparently on the theme of weather.

It’s a large exhibition with lots of info and a variety of work to serve as a good introduction, or to expand your knowledge. It’s on until August 29.

Also at Tate Britain, I popped into a BP Spotlight exhibition, Art and Alcohol, which is on until the autumn. It juxtaposes vastly different works and their different views on alcohol. There’s Gilbert and George again, with Balls: the evening before the night after – drinking sculpture 1972, 114 posed photos of the Balls bar on a night out.

Richard Billingham’s photo of his parents from 1994 shows his unwell-looking father being berated by his mother, and was groundbreaking at the time. There’s a Hogarth etching from 175 of Gin Lane, showing a drunken woman dropping her baby and other delights including violence, madness and a hanged person, showing the horrors said to come from gin drinking.

Other works are also morality tales. George Cruickshank’s enormous The Worship of Bacchus from 1860-62 depicts people celebrating life events with drink in the foreground, and then fighting and being destroyed by it behind.

It’s an interesting exhibition showing the move from trying to make a moral point to just depicting the facts over the years.

Back at the National Portrait Gallery until June 26 is Russia and the Arts, the age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, which is described as a once in a lifetime opportunity to see masterpieces from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It focuses on the cultural heroes of the period 1967-1914, and the artists who painted them.

There are figures you may expect to see – Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev and the two named in the title, plus others I hadn’t heard of. The composer Modest Mussorgsky appears dishevelled and in a dressing gown, but this was painted a few days before his death in hospital at a young age from alcoholism.

Towards the end as time move on in Russia, contemporary life intervenes. The poet Nikolai Gumilev is depicted as he was known at the time, as a dandy, but he was executed two years later in 1921 for counter revolutionary activities.

It’s a sobering end to an exhibition which was smaller than I expected, but still had lots to offer, with a lot of information about both sitter and artist and often the relationship between them, in some cases the friendliness or contempt visible in the work.

BBC Good Food Show offers some tasty (and thirst quenching) treats

So, Private View II decided to take its eye off art today and concentrate on two other things close to its heart, food and drink. A press invitation to the BBC Food Show Winter at the NEC was just the ticket.

It’s on until Sunday so there’s still time to get along. It’s vast, and has an enormous number of imbibing, scoffing and shopping opportunities, plus cooks – many known for their TV shows as well as restaurant work and books – putting in appearances with live cooking demonstrations, interviews and book signings. Still to come over the next few days are, amongst others, James Martin, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, Tom Kerridge, the Hairy Bikers, Lisa Faulkner and Hemsley+Hemsley. Today I saw a bit of Phil Vickery being creative and Lorraine Pascale talking about her love of peanut butter.

I mostly enjoyed the wandering and sampling though. There are enough freebies to mean you don’t need to buy any of the admittedly-nice looking snacks for sale.

The drinks area has plenty of wintery-type drinks, including a chocolatey and flat white Martini Baileys, and other spirits infused with cream too, plus gins and vodkas, as well as wine, cider and beer brewers. There was even one vodka apparently made with milk – a side product of a dairy farmer.

I had a chat with jolly Jaspal Purewal on the Indian Brewery Company stall as I sampled the wares of his son’s company, which include Indian Summer, India Pale Ale, Peacock, Bombay Honey and Birmingham Lager. Why do they call themselves the Indian Brewery Company I asked, expecting it was something to do with the ingredients or brewing process: “Because we’re Indian” came back the reply. Ask a stupid question…. They’re currently based in Ansley in North Warwickshire but looking to move into Birmingham.

I ate a potentially nightmare-inducing amount of different cheeses, and some hot curries, sauces and cooking mixtures. There were lots of sausage-producers there and also the Linda McCartney vegetarian range. The Saucy Fish Co served me up a nice snack, and I also tried different types of smoked salmon, crab and anchovies. There seemed to be lot of gluten-free versions of every type of food you could think of. I also sampled rice pudding, ice cream and fudge. I wish all my sampling was in proper meal order but I must admit it wasn’t – thank goodness for a strong stomach.

The main difficulty was getting to the front of the stalls, through the crowds, with everyone trying to get the most for their ticket price, which started at around £20 and increased considerably for VIP packages including Supertheatre.

My tips for getting the most out of the day:

  • Don’t have much for breakfast
  • Get there as soon as it opens, before it gets busy
  • Don’t wear too much, or leave your coat in the cloakroom – it got hot in there
  • Sharpen your elbows to deal with the lurkers around the front of the stands where all the free samples are being given out
  • Try something new; I enjoyed a kale smoothie (yes really) and took home a free leaflet of recipes
  • Leave your sense of embarrassment at home – if you want to make the most of your ticket and eat and drink your way round the show you can’t have an in-depth conversation with everyone on a stall. Just dip in and depart.
  • If you don’t have access to the ‘Supertheatre’ (and the very name put me off), don’t fret, there are opportunities for seeing lots of other big names in areas such as the winter kitchen, bakes and cakes stage and Stoves live cook stage. Today there also seemed to be some giveaways of kitchen items at the start of these – but they involved audience members having to get up and dance while being filmed and shown on a big screen before the host presented the goodies. Consider whether you want a new toaster that much!
  • Don’t miss the goody bags being given out nearby when you’ve left the main exhibition area – that huge box of pasta at least will come in handy!

 

Ai Weiwei and Giacometti are the stand-out stars of current London exhibitions

There are two exhibitions currently on in London which are must-sees if you’re in the capital any time soon.

Giacometti’s Pure Presence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has had five star reviews already, and on the second day it was open crowds were literally queuing out of the door to buy timed tickets. Despite this the gallery still didn’t feel over-full.

Giacometti is up there in my top two of sculptors, but this is apparently the first exhibition to focus on his portraiture, with more than 60 paintings, sculptures and drawings from international collections. He was fascinated throughout his career about how to evoke a human presence in his work, and how people fitted into space, and this exhibition seeks to explore that.

There are some amazing works from his youth, including his first sculpture, a bronze work of his brother Bruno made when the artist was just 13. Their father was a post-impressionist painter, and early paintings of his family are in a similar style. In later works he experimented with surrealism and developed his own style. The Artist’s Mother of 1927 showed her with a flat face, the features engraved on it.

A whole room focuses on works in which Giacometti’s mother, who lived into her 90s, was the model, being depicted depending on how he was working at that time; in one painting she was the only focus, then in 1950 she was seen smaller and at the end of he room, fitting into the context of household items, related to his interest in existentialism at that time.

His brother Diego worked with him much of his life, and there are several portraits of Diego seated more casually than the female models, and also Diego in a Sweater, a bronze from 1953 showing the jumper as huge, and his brother’s head tiny but sculpted in detail.

As Giacometti became more successful, there were other models from outside the family, including Jean Genet, painted off centre in an oil work from 1954-5.

A room shows photos of Giacometti with his family, his ramshackle studio and with companions including Samuel Beckett. However his interests in people were not limited to the well-known; his wife Annette posed for him many times, and towards the end of his life a model he called Caroline who moved in borderline criminal circles became important, and a series of paintings show him focussing in on her face and then more so her eyes.

It’s a fascinating exhibition which although successful in itself left me pining for more of his sculptures again.

Over at the Royal Academy, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition gained lots of publicity on opening because of the British government’s initial refusal to grant him a visa to enter the country, an act later reversed.

However the exhibition deserves fame on its own account, demonstrating art as an undoubtedly political act and process. There are quite a few items made from wood from dismantled temples from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), including an unusable table with two legs up the wall, and a table with pillar coming out of it. Kippe is a large structure made from bits of wood fitted together. Outside, you approach the gallery through wooden trees, made up of parts of different trees fitted together, representing the whole of China.

In one room, names and details line both walls, identifying the thousands of school pupils who died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, in which lots of inadequately-built schools collapsed. Metal rods meant to reinforce them are lined up on the floor in a large installation, and there is a film of the aftermath of the collapse, and photos. Pieces like this have not surprisingly made Ai Weiwei unpopular with the Chinese authorities.

Shanghai Studio is the title of another room, where we are told about how Ai Weiwei was invited to build a new studio in a Shanghai district, and this was done, then it was declared illegal and torn down; bits of brick, cement and ornate wood make up a huge block in the gallery from the destruction, ironically entitled Souvenir from Shanghai.

In another room, the destruction of Chinese historical building and artefacts and the race to destroy more through efforts to boost the economy is explored partly through Dust to Dust, ground dust from china dating back to 5000-3000BC stored in jars.

Fragments is a huge wooden structure you can walk underneath, made from some of the larger, attractive parts of dismantled ancient temples, and in another room the popular Chinese building material marble is turned into models of security cameras used to keep an eye on the artist.

In 2011, Ai Weiwei was held for 81 days as he tried to leave the country, and kept constantly in a room with two guards. He has created six small models of this room, which can be viewed through a window, or by looking down into it from positioned steps. In these he has modelled himself going through the motions of living, as the two guards watch; sleeping, reading, eating, showering and even using the toilet. You get some small idea of how intolerable this must have been.

The final room contains a chandelier made partly of bicycles; a bright, glittering end to an amazing exhibition of works by an artist of great significance today.

* Giacometti, Pure Presence, is on until January 10, and Ai Weiwei until December 13.

 

Koans take centre stage in St Ives summer exhibition

An exhibition at the Tate St Ives will have a familiar feel for anyone who’s ever visited the University of Warwick’s Warwick Arts Centre – and another piece in the show may well ring bells for those who’ve visited The Herbert in Coventry.

The Tate’s summer exhibition, Images Moving Out Into Space, takes its name from a series of kinetic sculptures that Bryan Wynter began to make in the 1960s – this is the Cornwall-based artist’s centenary year. The exhibition leaflet says the exhibition uses the series, which Wynter called Imoos, to “consider how abstraction can move us”.

Gallery 1 though features a series of koans by Liliane Lijn – a large one of which has stood outside the Arts Centre for decades, ready to feature in student sci-fi fantasies and be the backdrop to graduation pictures. They are apparently so named because of the similarity to cone, which they look like, and the Japanese word pronounced koan, which means question without an answer. The room full of differently-named, differently sized, but similarly-shaped spinning koans certainly brought on a sense of déjà vu.

The exhibition includes other works linked to the theme, though it’s not always obvious how.

The fascinating Dan Flavin’s work “monument” for V Tatlin from 1969-70 features white fluorescent tubes, and there’s a further room of his work, all in T shapes made up of different coloured fluorescent tubes, and a quote from Flavin: “it’s important to me that I don’t get my hands dirty….it’s a declaration: art is thought.”

John Divola’s Zuma project involves photographs of a derelict house by the sea, each one showing changes in it or developments brought about by him or others, and a number of sculptures including works by big-name artists including Elizabeth Frink, but casually laid out on tables created by Nicholas Deshayes so they are easy to almost disregard.

There are also lots of typical paintings by Bridget Riley, and by Bryan Wynter, including Saja of 1969, and Green Confluence and Red River; lots are concerned with the flow of water, as suited a keen canoeist. There’s also one Imoo, number VI, from 1965, hanging between rooms where you can linger to see yourself reflected, then not, in the slowly moving shapes.

It’s not a perfect exhibition but fun and interesting, and with those déjà vu moments for anyone who’s familiar with the koan at least.

 

Faye Claridge’s Kern Baby is striking sight at Compton Verney this year

A haunting vision greets visitors to Compton Verney art gallery in South Warwickshire all this year.

Kern Baby is the creation of Warwickshire-based artist Faye Claridge. She stands five metres tall, wears a long white gown – and has just wheat for her hands and head. The lack of a face as you approach and realize there is none there is the most striking thing.

The installation is backed up by an exhibition in the café area at the gallery, which explains where she comes from. Faye has had a residency at Library of Birmingham where she was working on the Sir Benjamin Stone photograph collection. Stone was a former Birmingham MP and Mayor of Sutton Coldfield who also travelled widely in the UK to photograph important historical places, festivals and pageants to record them for future generations in the late 1800s and early 1900s.Thousands of his prints are at the V&A and in Birmingham.

Faye said growing up with her Morris dancer father and folk singer mother she can remember a book of Stone’s photographs in the house as they gained a temporary popularity in the 1970s. She said: “To me they are very much about personal identity. Painting was felt to be in decline and photography was the new way of capturing something that was going to be lost.”

One of Stone’s photographs was of a Kern Baby, or corn dolly, from a festival called The Harvest Home in Northumberland in 1901. The community celebrated the wheat harvest by using the last gathered crop to create a human shape dressed in good clothes, and called it the Kern Baby. It was then kept over winter, then buried the next year: “It was buried in the first ploughing and planting in the new ground so the spirits of harvest went back in so she would grow again. I decided it should be revived.”

The work also chimes with the large British Folk Art collection at Compton Verney, and with the “Britishness” theme of the first two other new exhibitions of the year, Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, and The Non-Conformists, photographs by Martin Parr of Hebden Bridge in the 1970s.

The tall Kern Baby can be seen from the distance as you approach the gallery, and from a distance looks like she’s just escaped the building. She’s striking and unsettling, and worth circling to see from all angles and against different backdrops, some including the house and others just the trees and lake.

The structure is Faye’s biggest work to date, and involves more than 30 metres of theatre-grade polyester in the dress, which she sewed herself “on my ancient sewing machine”, and later added an underskirt as the structure underneath could be seen too easily. There is a yellow sash to reference the oilseed rape so prevalent these days.

The metal and water tank ballast which holds her in place was made with the help of a structural engineer and theatre design company, and she took four people six hours to put in place. It is hoped she will withstand the weather between now and December, though she will weather a bit and some wheat might be replaced.

Ironically, the Kern Doll was not conceived as the main part of the exhibition.

In the exhibition, Benjamin Stone’s photo The Harvest Home, Kern Baby, from 1901 is shown, a three foot white-clad figure in a plant bed, and Faye’s is a much bigger version of it. There is also an image of children holding hands around a huge pile of wood, entitled Northumberland Baal Fires: St John’s Eve, the prepared faggots, in what looks like a very strange scene from 1903.

Faye said: “I decided it would be fun to make a great prop to produce a new photo and to create a sculpture, but it was incredibly naïve but it got commissioned. I’ve done nothing on this scale before.”

She has though involved local schoolchildren from Welcombe Hills School and Hampton Lucy C of E primary to make her own version of the photo, with the uniform-clad youngsters solemnly surrounding the Kern Baby on a cold February day at Compton Verney. The photo was taken after working with them so they weren’t spooked by it.

She said: “My children (aged three and five) saw it when it was going dark and it was a full moon and she did look pretty ethereal.”

They gripped her hands tight, asked why she didn’t have a face and turned down an offer to touch!

Other photographs of Faye’s in the exhibition come under the title of A Child for Sacrifice, again inspired by Stone and photographs he took of youngsters in the Warwick pageant, and of the Wroth Silver ceremony. These depict youngsters from Marton, in Warwickshire, posing for her camera. Faye received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to work with Marton’s Museum of Country Bygones to use some off their items to recreate pictures by Benjamin Stone.

These are the ones, when I’m trying to find the right word, Faye suggests are “edgy”, though parents were always on hand, and the children photographed picked their costumes. It is their confidence in strange garb and poses which is quite unsettling.

In one, a girl sits on a throne in a cornfield, corn sceptre and orb in hand, and in some she has lace obscuring her face. A boy becomes a scarecrow with a blacked-up face, and another boy in Plough’s Demon has some anonymous arms reaching round him. Another very young boy in a field is Faye’s own son.

The Kern Baby is immediately impressive and striking in the landscape but the Stone photos, the stories behind them and Faye’s own photographs inside are also intriguing and throw out questions about traditions from the past and how we relate to them.

* Next year Kern Baby will get a new dress and go on show at Birmingham Library – changing her setting from rural to urban, and where visitors will be able to glide past her on escalators. Three showcases about Faye’s residency in the library are on show at the moment.

Designer of Coventry post-war icons is featured in exhibition – discovered by chance in Leeds

So, my first ever visit to Leeds, for a job, but of course I had to get there early so I could visit the city art gallery.

And just as predictably for me when trying to explore new places, the upper galleries were closed for work, but a wander into the attached Henry Moore Institute produced a surprising and enjoyable find. An exhibition about the work of Dorothy Annan and Trevor Tennant whose work I had seen repeatedly over the last twenty-plus years without ever knowing it.

Everyone who’s ever stopped to look at the Godiva Clock in Broadgate will have seen Tennant’s work in the Godiva figure which rides out every hour, and the Peeping Tom which watches her. There is a lovely photo of a long-lost Broadgate with the Godiva statue facing the clock and people sitting on grass to watch it being unveiled.

If you turn the corner to Broadgate House, those are also his carved figures displayed on it. Entitled People of Coventry they are supposed to represent people in a timeless feeling of continuity, an important aspect to the post-war rebuilding of the city. Broadgate House was a key part of Donald Gibson’s plan for the rebuilding of the city centre, and included in the exhibition is some correspondence between architect and sculptor. There’s also a great picture of Tennant working on the relief figures on a blitzed site in London’s Regent Park.

He also created the Levelling Stone of the Phoenix which now resides in Coventry, and a brick carving of a falcon which is described as being on the side of a Coventry junior school – though it didn’t say which one.

A fascinating series of photos also show Tennant giving a sculpture demonstration at Coventry Training College in 1947, creating a model of a woman sitter’s head in front of a live audience, seemingly all male, who are also shown peering closely at the finished work.

Trevor Tennant and Dorothy Annan were members of Artists International Association (AIA), a left-wing group established in 1932 whose aim was “Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development’. They were based in Leamington during the Second World War where they were also members of the Artists and Designers Group and worked on public commissions, influenced by their membership of AIA.

Dorothy Annan’s post-war work included a mosaic entitled The Good Earth for the Rugby Road Junior School in Leamington, an oil on brick mural design produced by the Artists and Designers Group, and showing a combination of industrial and pastoral scenes.

There are also images of her designs for the Neptune Tea Bar and another room at the Finham Park Hostel in Coventry in 1942.

This exhibition also covers the pair’s commissions in London and other parts of the country. Their Dorothy Annan and Trevor Tennant archive joined the Henry Moore Institute Archive of Sculptors’ Papers in 2012, donated by their family. This exhibition brings together photographs, sketchbooks and exhibition catalogues to give a chronological account of their practices and show the role of art in British society post-war. It’s on until March 1 in the Upper Sculpture Study Gallery, and I was glad to have found it.

* I also visited Yorkshire Sculpture Park, though with a bit of a mist about it possibly wasn’t the best day for it. And luckily I had the wellies in the car as it was pretty muddy and slippy and I was mindful of a friend who fell and ended up with a broken arm after a visit! The whole site was too big for me to do it justice in the time I had, but I’d like to return another time. Enjoyed seeing several large Henry Moore sculptures in the landscape, plus Anthony Caro’s large Promenade row of sculptures, Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree, which was outside the Chapel and Julian Opie’s Galloping Horse lightbox work racing through the gloom.

Inside the chapel was also Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson’s Song for Coal, an “immersive audio visual work” created to mark the 30 year anniversary of the miners’ strike. It’s pretty impressive as music and visuals combine to form a stained glass window appearance of miners and their lives on the chapel wall.

An island on the lake also caught my eye – loads of herons perched on nests and flying around, closer than I’ve ever seen them, and near enough to hear their flapping wings. It seems a great place to combine the man-made and the natural in a day out.