'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Occasionally I go to an exhibition so pertinent I'm agog to tell everyone about it. Phyllida Barlow at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly is one such. Previous encounters with Phyllida's work have left me a little cold, grasping at straws, but this week I had my Phyllida epiphany. I feel now I get it a bit, what the Phyllida fuss is about.

As you enter the gallery you walk straight into a forest. Not the conventional kind but thus inspired. The viewer is jostled about the ugly feet of a cacophony of tripodic monsters whose spindly, jointless metal limbs support vast concrete blocks over which rest delicate beautifully coloured silk veils, like sheets over a bird's cage, to hide or to protect, we know not which.

The feeling as I walked below this weighty platform was anxious and awe-filled. Ms Barlow may have captured something of what Christopher Wren was after when he built the dome at St Paul's. Automatically, spontaneously, my gaze was drawn upwards. The pressure from above was immense. There was a sense of being below, amid the foundations that hold aloft something greater, something mightier; of being in the gutter but looking at the stars. What was happening up there and would such skinny legs hold it, whatever it was, or were these entities about to crash down at any moment? Not rational of course, health and safety being what it is, business being what it is, but the human organism is not, whatever we may like to tell ourselves to the contrary, a ration entity. Gods or monsters I wondered. But of course, always, both.

From the balcony the landscape is different. Here we're in dialogue with the cloaked heads. We're on their level. The view is less daunting. Now we can study them closely and discover finally that they're not concrete but polystyrene. The sense of weight was an illusion. Empty after all. The thing I had looked up to, feared, held in esteem, proved, upon close proximity, to be nothing special. Distance and my own irrational projections had lent it a weight it did not, of itself, possess. It was a reminder to me of an important lesson I've been lately learning - strength is within, never without.

The work in the basement is quite the opposite experience. Here we meet a colony of lemming like beings, perhaps those tiny bi-pods whose individuality is subsumed to the greater collective authority, who move like a sea amongst the feet of the giants above. Fellows meaningful en masse but inconsequential alone. Fellows like you and me, projecting our weight on to those above.

The higher up the building we go the more celestial the atmosphere becomes until we reach the attic. Instructed by the invigilator I pottered through the tiny kitchen and up the narrow fire escape stairwell until at the top I peered through a small hatch into a cramped loft containing a rainbow of entrancing coloured spheres hanging from the ceiling like celestial bodies. An incidental sign reads: 'Caution, Electrical Hazard'.

The title of the exhibition is Rig. One presumes the word alludes to the construction of these works, that range from the ambitiously monumental to the delicately ethereal, in situ and in response to the architecture of the gallery space. Another, perhaps more niche meaning for the word is that of a gelded male horse who inexplicably continues to exhibit stallion like dominance type behaviours. I doubt this is the association the artist had in mind but to me it seems curiously fitting. Appearances, so often, are deceptive.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

"There is no great genius without a mixture of madness."

That's my excuse right there!
This week I went to visit the studio of an artist whose work I'm curating in a solo show next year, details of which are still under wraps so I'd better not spill premature beans. Hopefully it's safe to mention that Sarah's studio is in the well know artistic hub of Crawley. Not having the first clue where Crawley is I imagined it was going to take me the best part of a day to get there, but Google Maps informed me its not so far past Cobham. So, I thought best thing in terms of time management and my latest quest to make myself a 'highly effective person' was to go after my riding lesson. All very efficient and satisfactory, but it did mean I had to walk round Crawley in riding jodhpurs, knee high black leather boots and an ageing baseball cap concealing stuck to the forehead sweaty riding helmet hair which was a bit self conscious making. Ms Maple though generously pretended not to notice.

Sarah Maple is a feminist artist. Only problem is no-one really knows what that means because nobody knows what a feminist is. No-one knows what an artist is either for that matter, or rather everybody does and nobody agrees. So to say someone is a feminist artist is just to append to them and their work a selection of letters that serve to create various impressions in various minds many of which will be at odds with whatever may or may not have been the intended impression.

The other way of doing it is to state what a feminist is not:

So that's cleared that up. Excellent.

Sarah's work uses humour to discuss sensitive subjects. The one thing we're never supposed to mention in polite society is the elephant in the room. But, like all artists of significance, Sarah doesn't allow herself to be limited by social niceties, that ugly, desperate, and largely successful attempt to control, shape and manipulate. Rather she just says it like she sees it.

Not everybody enjoys the joke. Consequently her 2008 solo show attracted some fairly robust criticism (click here, and don't miss the staggeringly eloquent Suad al-Attar. Good old Auntie scoured the globe twice over to come up with an art historical expert of that calibre. Thank goodness for the TV licence, hey.)

Luckily Sarah hasn't let that put her off. Rather she's spent the last two years creating an entirely new but equally uncompromising body of work for the forthcoming show. I can't wait. It's gonna be a cracker.

Sarah's work is currently forming the inaugural exhibition at Inception Gallery, Paris, in a show entitled Sarah Maple est Croque Madame.

It must be strange to find yourself seventy-six, you've had three hip replacements and four children, you've been working diligently away in the same Kent studio for four decades without anybody taking the blindest bit of notice of what you're up to when suddenly Sienna Miller's putting your work on the front of t-shirts for her fashion line Twenty8Twelve, Ralph Rugoff's pitching up at your private view, Germaine Greer's bigging you up in the Guardian, you're even being referred to as 'electric and eclectic' by Grazia magazine. (I'm not sure which is greater, The Guardian or Grazia. Actually, no, Grazia obviously.)

Yet it seems this sort of thing is going on for a goodly handful of septuagenarian artists. Never mind life begins at 40. For a certain generation of women, life, it seems, is beginning at 70. Depressing on one level, inspiring on another, because it goes to show, you never know what's around the next corner.

One such is Rose Wylie. I really want to like Rose Wylie's work. What kind of a feminist doesn't like Rose Wylie's work? I'm trying, I'm really trying. But I'm kind of aware that I like the story more than I like the canvases. If I intellectualise the whole thing I can like them. If I'm going on my gut response, I don't.

They're very big, they're figurative and they're painted in that way that sort of implies spontaneity without actually being spontaneous. It's not a pretence, it's a process, just the result doesn't really grab me. Which, as Germaine Greer scathingly points out, it didn't really grab Charles Saatchi either, hence Wylie now finds herself 'imminently collectible'. Thumbs down from Charles, thumbs up from Sienna. Quelle minefield?! Who knew Germaine was such a follower of fashionable taste and its makers and shakers.

The exhibition currently showing at The Approach has Wylie's work alongside US born sculptor Evan Holloway. These, I'm afraid, I found utterly dreary. That sort of folksy, crafty looking stuff isn't my thing, however subtle its comments on modern scultpure's legacy.

That said, The Approach is a great space with an interesting exhibition programme, situated above a charmingly unpretentious pub. The private view was on First Thursday so post-Wylie we really should have dashed off to Vyner Street or Redchurch Street or somewhere equally buzzy, wherein we could have hoovered up three hundred exhibitions in less than half an hour. But my new policy in life is, I'm so over rushing about. What's to be gained from seeing three hundred exhibitions in less than half an hour anyway, when you can see one and then retire to the pub for a glass or two and a relaxed chin wag with a friend?

Yeah, I'm taking it easy from now on. Because apart from anything else, whatever I do, however hard I work, however much pressure I put on myself and on this thing called 'success', I don't know what's around the next corner. And if I do dash about and I do see everything and achieve everything… then what? Rather take it easy and leave a few challenges for next year.
Two wonderful things entered my life this week. A MacBook Air and a cat. The MacBook Air came from that haven of all gadgets glorious, the Mac Shop. I've never been into a computer shop I've liked before. Never spoken to a computer vendor I've understood. Now I suddenly get why forty-something girlfriends call me up whispering: "Beverley, I'm in the Mac Shop speaking to the most delightful young man. You must get a Mac."

The moggie is, if possible, even more delicious and beautiful. She came from the Mayhew. She's one year old, white and tortoise shell and she's the sweetest little thing since toast. Yesterday she introduced herself to the MacBook Air by typing very many 3's, followed by switching the volume off.

I'm afraid I've been horribly lazy about my blog recently. Or rather I've been caught up with other pressing matters. I've also been out of London for two months and of course there's no contemporary art outside the capital. It's grim up north you know. That's why they have those huge signposts at the start of the M1 saying THE NORTH. It's not information. It's a warning. And hey, I'm allowed to say that, because I'm a northerner, so no letters in from irate Wiganers please. It's true, there was the Manchester Festival, but I missed that, which I was sorry about as I would have loved to have seen the Marina Abramovich thing.

So, the first bit of contemporary art to cross my retina in two months had to be from those purveyors of contemporary art that's stylish, slick and edgy all at once. Of course, Art Angel.

In the name of bringing one's own subjective position into awareness, I should state that I was in a bad mood when travelling to Wenlock Road. Not that that's a bad thing in itself, but I think it's important as a reviewer to acknowledge that, in a way, the viewer is always creating the art work themselves. In part, if not in its entirety, the art work, and indeed the world, is a manifestation of one's internal landscape. And I was cross when I entered Ryan Gander's Locked Room Scenario. Which may (or may not) explain why I didn't really enjoy it, despite the fact that a bit of immersive installation (if I can use that ambiguous term du jour) is usually exactly my bag.

Locked Room Scenario is an exhibition in a depot in East London. But, when you get there the exhibition is ostensibly shut. Doors locked. No going in. So the 'exhibition' as it were, that is to say Ryan Gander's art work, is the viewer's engagement with the setting in which this locked exhibition space is located. The viewer walks down the various corridors that surround the exhibition, coming across nooks and crannies though which to steal a glimpse of what may be hidden beyond; a slide projector clicks through images seen via a mirror you have to lie on the floor to look in, a shadowy figure moves about behind a locked and frosted glass door, one corridor is so dark you have to grope your way along the wall. That was unnerving. At one point I gained confidence from a woman who was following a short distance behind me. I wasn't alone. I looked back a second or two later and she was gone.

Yet for all of that I still didn't really like Locked Room Scenario. It was quite fun I suppose in the way that the fairground might be thought of as quite fun. But it was clunky, a bit obvious and, dare I say it, a bit derivative. At the risk of revealing my ignorance I must confess that Mike Nelson sprang to mind and in the comparison, for me at least, Ryan Gander didn't come out that well. Probably if Mike Nelson or Ryan Gander were to read this they'd both be cursing such a banal observation. Nevertheless, Mike Nelson's works, Coral Reef I'm thinking of particularly, seemed to have more depth, more engagement and more narrative. The 'is it real, is it fiction' boundary blurring game has also been played with greater panache and success by other contemporary artists, notably I'm thinking of Jill Magid. It's rather the leitmotif of the moment.

The best bit was two supposed junkies, teenagers, looking slightly out of it, sitting in the concrete stairwell as I first entered the depot. For a nice middle class girl like me they were a bit nervous-making I'm slightly embarrassed to admit. I hid behind the door and listened to their conversation. I imagine it was scripted. The boy was talking about women and the fact that some girls reveal everything about themselves straight away whilst others are more complicated, revealing themselves slowly over time. So that was a hint for anyone who wasn't quite getting Locked Room Scenario. It's good folks, because it doesn't reveal itself all at once. Aha, it has hidden depths. I guess I must be the shallow type then because I'm still waiting for those hidden depths to reveal themselves and so far… no dice. I can't help thinking though that if you have to signal to someone upfront about how deep and meaningful you are for fear they might otherwise miss that fact, it's not a portentous sign.

Locked Room Scenario
Londonnewcastle Depot
N1 7SL
until 23 October