I never quite know what I’m going to find valuable or enjoyable when I set out to go to an exhibition. Often what I expect to like, I don’t and vice versa. Here are a few of the shows I have been to recently that were just a sheer delight. No photos for some either because it wasn’t allowed or for reasons explained below.
I caught the tail end of a survey of Idris Kahn’s work at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. The gallery is a fabulous space and the top floor was given over to works ranging across his career. I knew his photographic multiples, where he photographs, for instance, every page of the Q’ran and creates a single image superimposing them all. But what I enjoyed most here were new works on glass, pursuing the same theme, but using his own words printed in a star burst shape. Because of the way they are constructed and displayed, you get complex layers created by the overlapping words on the glass sheets but also by the shadows which vary in intensity because of the difference in distances from the wall.
Next, and on until September, Drawn from Life, sculptures by Marc Quinn on show in Sir John Soane’s Museum . I hadn’t been to the Museum before, so that is quite an experience in itself. It is his house, or rather houses, since he bought both nos. 12 and 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and they have been left largely untouched. When you know that, the experience of visiting is very strange, as all the rooms are simply crammed with art and antiquities, from a huge stone Egyptian pharaoh’s sarcophagus to portraits of himself and his wife. By ‘crammed’ I don’t just mean filling the walls but filling most of the floor space too. You have to shuffle between statues and furniture in rooms which aren’t very big. And into this mix – intended to inspire the students of the Royal Academy – have now been added 12 sculptures by Marc Quinn, All About Love, drawing on the idea of the fragment, which fits neatly into the museum. All twelve are based on body casts of the artist and his wife, the dancer Jenny Bastet, in various embraces. But they are all fragmentary: his arms unconnected to a torso may be embracing her, the top half of her body doesn’t quite fit onto the lower half, which might come from a clearly different cast in a different pose. The sculptures are quite unsettling: the gallery notes speak of ‘Quinn’s recurring fascination with the physical ambiguities of human emotion.’
At Parafin Gallery is It Is Here, paintings by Justin Mortimer. I can’t remember how I heard about this show or what made me think I should go, but there is so much here to enjoy. Mortimer’s paintings combine imagery from books, magazines and the internet into visions of ‘a world in which nothing is stable or certain’. At one level the works are very seductive with bright colours, abstract elements and intensely worked areas, but they are also unsettling and ambiguous. And there are grids!
Mat Collishaw has a show at Blain Southern which sounds very cerebral: ‘exploring ideas of superficial truth and the erosive effect of our primal urges for visual supremacy.’ The ideas behind the work are complex but the work can be enjoyed without reference to any of that. No photographs, not least because the show is in darkened rooms and anyway I don’t think my amateur pics could do justice to the work. There is a zoetrope which animates the mating rituals of bowerbirds and birds of paradise in a blur of colourful repetitive movement; there is an installation of a rotating image, created by laser scanning, of an ancient oak in Sherwood Forest. The tree has a hollow rotten trunk and its branches are held up by scaffolding, like a living object trapped in a cage. And there are 12 trompe l’oeil paintings of birds on perches, against colourful graffiti-tagged walls. The colourful plumage of the birds intended to impress potential mates struggles to stand out against the busy background and the birds end up looking rather sad, left behind, relics of a time when we weren’t surrounded by so much visual information. The paintings are just beautiful, which both confirms that we are conditioned to respond to colour, texture, surface and so on, and perhaps also demonstrates the strength of our visual instincts.
Printmaker Lucy Bainbridge has a show called Fermata at the Foundry Gallery, a space in an architect’s office off the Kings Road. The prints are based on photographs of London just before dawn, and made on surfaces toned with graphite. They are reminiscent of Whistler’s Nocturnes in mood. I like the fact that Bainbridge doesn’t shy away from the properly urban elements of the skyline – it’s not all St Paul’s, history and the river – and the way that structures emerge out of the dusky sky, an idea I was interested in a few years ago, in relation to the South Bank and the way the buildings seem to emerge out of a sea of concrete.
And finally, Tate Britain is having one of its ‘we’re not just Tate Modern’s lesser visited boring aunt’ moments with the very well attended David Hockney show and the brilliant 2017 commission by Cerith Wyn Evans in the Duveen Galleries. The Hockney show is a career survey, from a teenage pencil self-portrait to current iPad drawings, via such well known hits as A Bigger Splash – which doesn’t disappoint. There are two groups of drawings: one a selection of ‘sketches’ of people and places, made in the 60s through to around 2000; and the second, a set of 25 drawings made just before he left Yorkshire in 2015 to return to California. The first group demonstrate his skill; he laments that drawing was discarded by art schools from the 60s onwards. I would dispute the curator’s description of most of these as ‘quick sketches’, ‘capturing a person or place in a few lines’: no, really, they aren’t! I know I can’t judge by my skill level or work rate, but these are not 5 minute sketches; they are very careful drawings, albeit with a Hockneyesque eye for selection. The second group consists of 5 sets of 5 drawings, each made in a different local spot and showing the arrival of spring on 5 different dates. They are in charcoal, which might seem an odd choice for an ‘arrival of spring’ suite but in fact the medium puts the focus very much on mark making and how it can be used to show growth and texture.
And here are some pictures of Cerith Wyn Evans light installation Forms in Space … by Light (in Time). The phrase ‘light installation’ can cause my heart to sink but this is a perfectly judged drawing in space using the lights as a line-making tool. I’m not sure that it made me ‘question our notions of reality and cognition, of perception and subjectivity’ but it did delight me.