It’s hard to complain about the big institutional shows on display just now: Whiteread, the Kabakovs, Modigliani at the Tates; Monochrome Painting and Rodin at the National Gallery; Cezanne at the NPG; Rose Wiley at the Serpentine Sackler; the US generational overview provided by Wade Guyton (Serpentine), Seth Price (ICA) and Dan Colen (Newport Street); Thomas Struth at Whitechapel; Soutine at the Courtauld; Dali/Duchamp and Jasper Johns at the RA (Ending This Weekend) … and all except Johns are up over Christmas. Here are a couple of examples of why, contrary to the mysteriously mixed reviews the show has received, I reckon anyone who hasn’t yet been should head to ‘Something Resembling Truth’ by 10 December:
Where ‘Flag’ was really a painting, ‘Fool’s House’, 1964, presents a broom which is not only a real broom, but is labelled as such. The same can be said of the cup and towel. The point is that the broom is actually being used as a brush, the sweep of which – in a satire of ‘action painting’ – has left a mark on the canvas. So if ‘meaning is use’, in the formulation of Johns’ favourite philosopher, Wittgenstein, then the ‘broom’ ought to be labelled ‘brush’. And so on: ‘mixing pot’ not cup, ‘paint rag’ not ‘towel’. Hence ‘Fool’s House’: the artist’s house has bled into his studio, and he has foolishly failed to identify the difference. Yet we may suspect that art and life are rightly seen as inextricable, or as Shakespeare had Lear put it: ‘this is not altogether fool’.
‘Two Flag on Orange’ from 1986-7 shows Johns continuing to manipulate his foundational motifs, even as they remain – first and foremost – the bearer of painterly effects which interrogate the relationship between art and reality. Here orange ignites the ground enough to hint at contagion; and by employing the ‘rotational effect’, whereby the flag dis- and re-appears at the edges as if the image were cut from a cylinder, Johns defamiliarises the flag and might even mean to form the capital letter ‘I’ from the negative shape. That’s would be directly autobiographical, as more recently explored by Mark Wallinger in paintings of the letter ‘I’; and also a typical reference to Johns’ own art, in which letters have a prominent place – so making one early motif out of another. The medium – ink on plastic – is unusual but as typical of Johns as encaustic.
Tony Matelli: Past-Life @ Marlborough Contemporary, 6 Albemarle Street – Central
To Dec 22
Woman in the Wind, 2017 – marble and painted bronze
Jasper Johns may be the subtlest investigator of the differences between art and life (see the Royal Academy) and Giorgio de Chirico the most atmospheric combiner of classical and modern (see Tornabuoni and Namhad Projects) , but Tony Matelli acts as an inheritor of aspects of both with his found statuary aged by sandblasting, truncation and patination, topped with contrastingly perishable items, such as fruit, made permanent in painted bronze and cast glass to yield a striking new twist on the vanitas theme. Back stage, in the office, you’ll find Matelli’s best-known stream of work – a bronze weed – and what looks like a dusty mirror, riffing further on apparent age and insignificance.
Reclining Figure, 2017 – marble and painted bronze
Giorgio de Chirico: Getafisica da Giardino @ Nahmad Projects, 2 Cork St and Reading de Chirico @ Tornabuoni Art, 46 Albemarle St – Central
To 15 Dec (Nahmad) / 10 Jan (Tornabuoni)
Sun and Moon, 1972
Happy times if , like me, you like all phases of de Chirico. Nahmad has the odder of two substantial shows, for which Francesco Vezzoli installs paintings against a wallpaper background of de Chirico motifs, complete with astroturf floor. There are 18 de Chirico’s: first run 1920’s classics, later ‘self-copies’ of the same subjects, some misdated by the artist (can you forge yourself? Discuss), self-portraits in his ‘old master’ style… and an ante-room full of the little-known late motif of the sun as a character which can, for example, sit on a chair. Vezzoli contributes three works: paintings which vary de Chrico’s originals in appropriate spirit, and a classical torso to which he has added a de Chirico head à la tailor’s dummy. Great fun, and well complemented by the more scholarly presentation of 25 de Chirico’s at Tornabuoni.
Installation view at Nahmad Projects
Marie Harnett: Still @ Alan Cristea Gallery, 43 Pall Mall – Central
To 6 Jan
Marie Harnett with the linocut Grief, 2017
Here Marie Harnett, known for her ravishingly detailed small drawings of films, extends her scale and material scope and the ways in which production and cinematic times relate. The frozen moment images are – still – all taken from film trailers, Harnett preferring not to have her choices influenced by the whole movie’s narrative, but the graphite works range from postage stamp to cinema screen sizes. They include Picabaesque ‘overlap drawings’ (as below), taken from frames in which one scene cuts to another; and some extensive abstract passages. She’s also made large linocuts which use curved lines, suggesting fingerprints on celluloid filmstrips held up for inspection: they look like plenty of work, so it’s bracing to learn that a 15 x 10cm drawing takes her as long as cutting a two square metre triptych. The artist also reveals not her hand but her sources’ hands in the short film (or is a trailer?) ‘Hands’, collaged from – you guessed it – film trailers.
Allerdale Hall, 2016 – Pencil on paper, 8 x 15cm
Drift @ JGM Gallery, 24 Howie St – Battersea
To 20 Jan
Phillip Hunt: Paperjet 4, 1999-2018
Niko Kos Earle pulls off a refreshingly ambitious show in JGM’s sparkling new space: very big work brought in from across the world, united by an abstract intensity bordering on the spiritual, and by how the four artists have – in the titular theme – drifted around the world, between ways of being, and into different materials. It hangs together beautifully as, for example, Lluís Lleó, just returned to Spain from America, achieves a monumental delicacy on paper; Suki Jobson repurposes old dresses discovered in her Irish birthplace; Anglo-New Zealander Simon energises architectural from with implied movement; and Cape Cod based Phillip Hunt revisits work he made in South Africa last century to intoxicating effect *.
Simon Allison: Spin Cycle and Debris, 2016
* bias alert: I helped a little with the show – you can see a fuller account of it here.
Marc Vaux | The Edge and Beyond – constructed works 1977 – 2017 @ Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street St. James’s – Central
To 21st December
Cube 1, 2006: powder coated aluminium, glass, hand-painted wood, 22 x 22 x 22cm
There’s a twist in the tail of this 40 work retrospective survey. For the last quarter century of his production, Josef Albers (1888-1976) pretty much painted just squares. Marc Vaux, a consummate painter-maker, focused primarily on the square for forty years from the mid-sixties, exploring in particular how vari-colouring the edge of a white square and / or taking it towards three-dimensionality affect its light and space. This decade though, Vaux has gone beyond Albers by turning towards the oval. He says he wanted something which didn’t operate on the horizontal and vertical, and neither was it symmetrical. Add that the oval can look quite different when its proportions are changed, can be tilted interestingly, and has links to natural and human forms, and the new direction he has taken into his eighties of his 80’s became clear.
Untitled, 2017: Mixed media with acrylic, 30 x 50 x 15 cm
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Snow White @ Marian Goodman Gallery, 5-8 Lower John St – Soho
To 22 Dec
Union City Drive-In, Union City, 1993
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of movie theatres taken over the full course of a screening so that – typically – 170,000 images coalesce to form a white screen, tick enough conceptual boxes (time, absence, abstraction…) to have become a staple of themed group shows. But what is gained by seeing 20 of them together? Plenty, as it turns out: the shadowed detail around the screen is captivating in large format, and varies considerably between the sub-subjects here: still operative cinemas; abandoned theatres in which Sugimoto reintroduced a screen and projected a film to take his photograph; drive-in screens; and Italian opera houses – architectural inspiration for the American theatres which Sugimoto first started filming in 1976 – for which the film is typically projected onto the stage curtains.
Paramount Theater, Newark, 2015
Florence Peake: Rite @ Studio Leigh, 6 Garden Walk – Shoreditch
To 16 Dec
Still from Rite
Studio Leigh’s first show across the road from its former space sees dancer-artist Florence Peake draw multi-formed multi-collaborative inspiration from the Rite of Spring. Little of the music is heard, but the centrepiece is a film in which Rosemary Lee, shot from a dramatic overhead view, battles her way out from under a bed of wet clay to the internalised sound of Stravinsky’s score, expiring after 14 minutes of dancing herself into birth and then, as in the ballet, to death. That floor has been cut into a grid and fired to make a performative sculpture. Peake herself has danced Rite-rhythmed body drawings – onto oil-primed paper and a plywood board with sand and plaster – and made half-cairn, half-human sculptures tapping into the primitive forces of the Rite. The elements come together to make an visceral and active composition.
Installation view with The Ancestors and Spring Rounds (on wall)
XVII: The Age of Nymphs @ Mimosa House, 12 Princes Street – Oxford Circus
To 13 Jan
Upper installation view with Nika Neelova, Folded Rooms, perimeter of studio traced in stainless steel and wax and folded, 2017 – Photo: Damian Griffiths
A surprisingly extensive and central new project space makes the most of its unusual set-up here through a Russian-oriented show which has an underworld, a transitional corridor and a more ethereal upper zone, all tied in to the number 17 – as in the anniversary of 1917’ revolution, the number of years Putin has been in power, and the time cicadas spend underground prior to their ‘resurrection’ for a month of mating. Olga Grotova’s films hook us into the cyclic calm of nuns who look as if they’ve stepped out of a Helmut Newton photo; Nika Neelova turns the topography of a shucked-off exoskeleton hanging below into a coolly folded room above; Yelena Popova provides both apparently evaporated portraits, as from the deep past, and an empty cut-out awaiting future faces; undeterred by their lack of tymbals to flex and wings to flick, Neelova and Mira Calix team up to imitate both male and female cicadas in the corridor, crossing sex and species boundaries and referencing the mythical transformation of people into the insects when first introduced to and overpowered by music. Does it all cohere? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly worth the pondering.
Lower installation view with Olga Grotova, The Ice Rink, video, sound, 11’40, 2017 and Nika Neelova, Exuviae, 2017 – Photo: Damian Griffiths.
Tom Wesselmann: Bedroom Paintings @ Gagosian Davies Street & Tom Wesselmann @ Almine Rech, Grosvenor Hill – Mayfair
To Dec 16
Bedroom Painting #21, 1969-1975
I guess one thinks of breasts for Tom Wesselmann’s pictures of body elements, but hands and feet star in the Gagosian half of this double-bill. In the oval Bedroom Painting #21, you might think they are set against abstract elements, but that radical black centre is a curtain, overlapping a green blind, allowing a slither of landscape; and we see yellow flowers, a section of purple wall and a light switch. And if you find it a little cold in its rigorous, formal, implicitly sexual organisation – what are these, adverts for parts of women? – then there’s a warmer, more intimate feel to the complementary show of later work in Almine Rech’s newly-opened basement space, All include the face, such as this mother and baby study, which flowed into a shaped canvas of 1979-91.
Study for Barbara and Baby, 1979
Nature Morte @ Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard – City of London
To 2 April 2018, £8: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/attractions/guildhall-galleries
Caroline McCarthy: Vanitas, 2007
The large but little known Guildhall Art Gallery has a significant collection of Victorian paintings, currently complemented by and integrated with over 100 contemporary still lives. They provide new spins on flora, vanitas, food and domestic objects in a show – organised by Peckham’s MOCA – which toured the world three years before arriving in London. You’ll find, Andro Semeiko’s 1.5m square “Very big chocolate cake”, a tribute to potential excess, more healthily topped by a 2 m high painting of cherries by Martin Gustavsson; and library of woodland books by Conrad Bakker; a Fright Wig made from household dust by Paul Hazelton; Caroline McCarthy’s image of a skull made from Ben-Day dots punched out of a binbag hung next to it, waste to waste; and two classic Fantin-Latour florals – while both Philip Pirolo and Michael Petry (also the lead curator) make striking works which equate flower and anus.
Michael Petry: Red Roses, 2009 – one of three blown glass and cut flower arrangements in which the rim of the vase is taken from online submission of anus shapes, and each flower choice represents a man’s sexual preferences via the 1970’s gay hanky colour code.
Images courtesy / copyright the relevant artists and galleries Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017