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Monday, 1 August 2016

APT Gallery: Ingredients, Method, Serving Suggestion (until 11th September 2016)

Curated by one of its featuring artists and recipient of the APT Curatorial Fellowship 2016, Alaena Turner, this curious exhibition at APT Gallery, SE8, looks to explore the relationship contemporary art has with the everyday, whether this is through domestic objects in sculpture, or more abstract depictions. As it emerges, this relationship is a strong and recurrent one, and in these mostly new works we see ideas unfold from many different angles. Without being totally abstract, instead contemporary pieces partially subvert domestic practices; the show's press release almost poetically states that "the instructive form of the recipe enables material knowledge to be shared through collective acts of repetition and interpretation, situating the recipe as the historical precedent for open-source models of knowledge distribution", emphasising the domestic routine as creative process rather than a more banal outcome.

The favourable size of the APT Gallery space means that there is the physical capacity to house many works as part of the exhibition, however by spacing them out, each medium is embraced and each artist is then granted a solid voice. Materiality is also a pivotal theme throughout the show, as the viewer's ability to form connections with each material used in the work is potentially the first point at which the theme of the exhibition reaches its audience. Jack Vickridge's 'Untitled' work is comprised of concrete and pigment, the former of which we regularly identify as a highly useful and historically significant material, primarily in architectural history but also bearing a strong social impact. Furthermore the decision for the piece to remain 'Untitled' allows an intimate bond to form between viewer and artwork, with minimal artist intervention.

Jack Vickridge, Untitled, 2016. Concrete and pigment, 38.5cm x 44.5cm. APT Gallery, London. 

Diversifying from a focus on the material element of an artwork, perhaps the most compelling piece featured in the show comes from London-based artist Katrina Blannin, whose painting and supporting acrylic sign, 'Black Madonna, Dear Yoko', responds directly to the textual based work in Yoko Ono's oeuvre, which regularly involves instructions and influences from psychogeographical practices. The accompanying sign sets out the artist's ideas on how the minutiae of daily life might be expressed through painting. A poignant piece, Blannin's words avoid contemporary art jargon and can be viewed as transferable to various moments within the everyday: "Yes, life and art is simple and small and fun. But your script is multi-layered and my painting cannot be" (sic.) is further enhanced by observing the painting, which at first glance appears to be a plain, blanketed black canvas, but in fact the image has been split four ways and, indeed, presents itself as multi-layered. Creating an experience out of everyday mentalities and actions really exemplifies the remit of the show.

'Ingredients, Method, Serving Suggestion' extends beyond the static artistic representation of wall-based canvas works; innovation and alternative curation are both prevalent in the back gallery space, where, most notably, Eddie Farrell, Bruce McLean and Alaena Turner's 'Underwater Watercolours' film is showcased within a water-filled fish tank. This is a highly fitting and aesthetically beautiful way of displaying the video, however again it is the painting practice which perhaps encourages the most exploration and intrigue, especially in the manifestation of work by another London-based artist, Damian Taylor. 'Untitled (pour)' and 'Untitled (paw)' employ clever wordplay, materialising the show's reiteration of performing the everyday, and the incognito alchemy that occurs on a daily basis, varying from room to room within the home, and further more in the exterior realm.

Sarah Kate Wilson, Visors, 2016. Coloured acetate, garment hangers, cord, electrical tape, 50cm x 68cm. APT Gallery, London.

Ultimately, 'Ingredients, Method, Serving Suggestion' is a comfortable viewing experience for visitors well equipped with contemporary art themes. Particularly with the growing popularity of performance art, reproducing the everyday in terms of aesthetic depiction and philosophical significance is becoming more commonplace across all media. By incorporating the exhibition in the gallery space with themed events, including a 'recipe swap symposium', APT Gallery ensures that, instead of answering specific questions or addressing ideas directly, an ongoing discussion is extended to the artists and viewing public alike.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Charlie Smith London: Wendy Mayer 'Curious Room' (until 30th July 2016)

Shock and mild repulsion are universal, if not lazy, reactions to this body of work by Welsh artist Wendy Mayer, but the sculptures featured in 'Curious Room' certainly evoke a chilling and highly personal response which will undoubtedly vary with each viewer. Hyperrealism is practiced in Mayer's work, with startling vinyl figures of babies' heads incorporated into various domestic objects, including an oil can and a vase. The coming together of two objects (both highly recognisable, one banal) forms a collection which is at once disconcerting and compelling, for the reason that, at face value, the viewer demands explanation of the performative aspect of the work.

Charlie Smith London, EC1V, has put together a show which focuses heavily on sculptural work and pushes it to its limits, as hyperrealism is often able to do. As aforementioned, it is clear that the artist's practice is saturated with personal, perhaps scarring, memories and trapped emotions, whether these are Mayer's own or drawn from external inspiration. In 'Cocoon', the first sculpture merging vinyl and ceramics, an artificial head is held within a ceramic vase bearing the design of a shell, suggesting a strong binding relationship between mankind and nature. In fact the intensity of the piece combined with the almost suffocating closeness with which the head is fixed to the vase implies that there is a kind of metamorphosis afoot, yet the identity and physicality of the figure is frozen in time. It then becomes clear that the artist is playing with the idea of memories transcending through time and affecting the individual's own future by incorporating the past.

Wendy Mayer, Cocoon, 2016. Painted vinyl, mohair, ceramic vase, 18cm x 24cm x 12cm. Charlie Smith London, London.

While the exhibition is sculpture-heavy, 'Land of Our Fathers' adds a further dimension to the show which allows the viewer to really enter Mayer's thought process. A papier maché and wax setup, bearing great resemblances to the rest of the show with the inclusion of painted vinyl faces engulfed in gold pillars, a small theatre stage is the setup for a performance of a musical interlude, using a pipe organ track, which is potentially longer in length than necessary, but certainly adds both unity and further complexity to the exhibition as a whole. The sound piece is frantic and often sporadic, mirrored by an element of the piece which repeatedly transfixes the viewer: two golden faces between the gold pillars which are highly similar to those already seen in the sculptural works, but have a distressed facial expression which adds a new stratum of intrigue to the show, as again they visually articulate bold emotions yet are frozen in time and are at the mercy of the artist. Whereas often the viewer has some level of autonomy in comprehending an artwork, 'Curious Room' is very much a public expression of Mayer's private space.

Some abstract ideas or metaphors in the show are rewarding to uncover, such as the 'Smotyn Du' series, showcasing five different vinyl faces, this time incorporated into a coat hanger and hung from a coat peg. Darkly resembling the crucifixion of Christ, the viewer is reminded of the fragility of human life and, in the context of 'Curious Room', the different tragedies and memories integral to each of these lives. Interestingly, especially given the heightened nature of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is no ethnic diversity within the series, which contains Blonde, Auburn, Dark (which is decidedly Caucasian), Brown (likewise) and Strawberry. 

Wendy Mayer, Smotyn Du (Auburn), 2016. Painted vinyl, mohair, silk, coat hangers, metal pegs, 40cm x 12cm x 41cm. Charlie Smith London, London. 

Perhaps the most poignant work is 'Little Bird', which is perhaps naively so due to its matte black structure comprising of ceramic, papier maché and feathers. A static, emotionless visage now loses much of its hyperreal aesthetic by being painted black and shaped like an urn. There is the feeling that this piece is intensely personal and acts as a memento mori, and while each work is compelling, there is less desire to investigate explicitly the reasoning behind 'Little Bird'. Ultimately this is prevalent throughout the show, despite the initial intrigue to understand why babies have been used as a motif. Thus this response is certainly bizarre in the world of contemporary art, where the urge to analyse and assess the context, theories and effects of each respective artwork is the prerogative of the viewer.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Ben Brown Fine Arts: Ron Arad 'Summer Exhibition' (until 26th September 2016)

For their summer exhibition, Ben Brown Fine Arts, W1K, present a collection of works by internationally renowned designer and artist Ron Arad. The division between fine art and contemporary design is repeatedly challenged here, to the point where it is suggested that the two may overlap seamlessly. Certainly, there is nothing to say that design has a lesser place in the gallery setting than fine art, however with Arad's functional influences and potential uses for the works, the idea of an exhibition containing works which identify as both art and design concurrently is an interesting starting point for analysing the show.

Ben Brown Fine Arts do state that this body of recent works by Arad contains "sculpture, hand-crafted studio pieces and industrial design", so that the viewer is immediately aware of the ambiguity present within the pieces. This is not to say that the designs are not bold and aesthetically compelling, as they surely are, but intriguingly this overlap of art and design helps us investigate not only the intricacies of Arad's practice, but the role of the gallery in presenting accessible art and design industry pieces to the public. Perhaps the greatest example of this is 'Even the Oddballs', a set of two stainless steel sculptures which appear as a striking form of contemporary art, bearing a familiar visual resemblance to chairs. We are reminded once again of William Morris' infamous quote on the useful and the beautiful, which actually emerges on another piece in the show, 'Useful, Beautiful, Love'.

Installation view: Ron Arad, Even the Oddballs, 2008. Stainless steel, 96cm x 128cm x 76cm. Ben Brown Fine Arts, London and Hong Kong.

Merging ideas from art and design in such a way evokes questions of utility in contemporary art, and whether this is truly compatible. Evidently, acquiring 'Even the Oddballs' would not lend itself to the piece being used as domestic furniture, and given that Arad's practice encompasses architecture in addition to industrial design, this is likely to have been a point of contention for curators and the artist alike. Instead of practical utility, the gallery states that interaction is a pivotal motif in the artist's work, and whether this is in the form of an emotional reaction to the work, such as the familiarity found in 'Even the Oddballs' and the couch-like form of 'Tuba', or in the more abstract way of amusing connections such as the sweetly titled 'Hedgehog' hand-blown glass piece, this is certainly the case in Ben Brown Fine Arts' showcase.

Ron Arad, Hedgehog, 2016. Hand-blown glass and stainless steel, 85cm x 79cm x 76cm. Ben Brown Fine Arts, London and Hong Kong.

Referring again to 'Even the Oddballs', the artist interestingly suggests a niche market or user base for the piece, through its title. This is not an object for public or banal consumption; instead, further emphasis is placed on the value of the piece in a gallery setting, where it is to be admired and contemplated rather than being used as a backdrop. With the aforementioned diverse practice of Arad, we are able to see distinct stylistic similarities between his design practice and his architectural endeavours, such as the Dats Et showroom for Notify Jeans in Milan, with its sharp stainless steel appearance and a swift curvature which gives the impression of constant progress. This is another effective strategy for showcasing the ways in which art, design and, indeed, architecture can be interchangeable and serve different purposes yet come together under one practice.

New works by Arad are not merely reserved for the partial privacy of the gallery space, as the 2009 sculpture 'Free-Standing China' is situated outside the gallery on  Brook's Mews and described by the gallery as a "sculptural bookshelf", again reinforcing the potential of utility and beauty coming together in design practice, in addition to the role of the art gallery in conveying such an idea. With Ben Brown Fine Arts' central location of Mayfair, the temptation for works to fall into indulgent opulence is great, yet a reminder of the value of material, labour and function in these works is appreciated by the viewer and, surely, the industry alike.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Herald St: Nick Relph (until 24th July 2016)

With little conextual detail provided prior to visiting the exhibition at Herald St, E2, a gallery named after its specific location, this latest body of work by New York-based artist Nick Relph looks at the minutiae of urban living and planning. Including two distinct series of works, the viewer is transported to what appears to be a virtual reality of city life, whether it be New York, Paris, or another in the viewer's mind.

Triggering this journey first is 'Glorifying the American Girl', a large C-print with a title which instantly personifies the architectural subject matter of the piece, as we are presented with a skyscraper so tall that none of its surroundings meet its height. This is such that the viewer becomes aware of the possibility that the image has been digitally altered. Aside from this, the patriarchal tradition of building higher and higher towards the sky (with design media often reporting on and retorting against the world's "next tallest building" etc.) is parodied in 'Glorifying the American Girl', with a chunk of the middle of the building replaced with a large white vacuum of a square.

Installation view: Nick Relph, Glorifying the American Girl, 2016. C-print, 127cm x 101.6cm. Herald St, London.

While architecture plays a significant role in the untitled show, there is also a rather curious series, featuring three works titled 'Eclipse', 'Extra' and 'Orbit' respectively. Each is comprised of cotton, colour photocopy on acetate and a frame, with the cotton loosely overlapping the frame and reaching towards the viewer. The media is not the only element uniting the three works, as they all feature the motif of a phone, which appears to have been embroided onto the page but is in fact a colour photocopy. Relph's commentary on our dependence on technology and how it is engrained in us both habitually and often physically, with phones rarely leaving our sides, becomes evident, and the repetitive use of the phone is an effectively jarring continuity in the exhibition, especially as works outside the series are crisp, defined and aesthetically pleasing. 'Eclipse', in particular, showcases the iconography of the phone and little else; by the end of the exhibition we feel bombarded with its presence, much like the claustrophobic ability to be in constant communication through the device.

The second intriguing mini-series involves three cibachrome pieces titled 'Anti Gate', 'Not Gate' and 'No Gate' respectively, where pieces of fabric were stretched and magnified, exposing tears in their constitution. Lacking in direct context, each work entices the viewer with rich aesthetic vibrancy and ambiguity as to what lies behind the breaks in each fabric. Again, with 'Anti Gate', we see the use of familiar symbolism with Relph's use of denim as the primary background, or focus, of the work. As such, a rip in denim is highly banal, yet observing the intricacy of the material in this way allows a fresh perspective on the many different materials comprising our daily lives.

Installation view: Nick Relph, Anti Gate, 2016. Cibachrome, 127cm x 101.6cm. Herald St, London.

Aside from subjective aesthetic value, Relph's use of architecture [visualisation] is highly interesting and has the power to pull everything in the exhibition together. By showcasing buildings in isolation, we see nods to the JG Ballard novel 'High Rise', as well as an expression of how microcosms work on different scales, from the fabric of one's clothes to the spaces in which we live.  One of these images is 'Irene', a C-print which depicts a visualisation of a dark, computer-generated complex, with an intersection of three streets, much like an old-school video game. As the image is evidently manipulated, and CMYK samples remain throughout, a bizarre mystique forms around how the image has been composed. 

A lack of direct, or explicit, communication from artist to viewer allows the inclusion of our own thoughts and experiences, adding personal value to the works. The exhibition's final curated work, 'Paris', shows a fairly generic high rise complex, certainly indecipherable as Parisian; avoiding traditional or vernacular stylings in each of his examples, Relph creates an anonymous yet open urban landscape for his viewers to access with extends throughout the exhibition as we piece together fragments of a global city. Ultimately, showing the artist's work in London only serves to ignite these ideas.

Installation view: Nick Relph, Paris, 2016. C-print, 127cm x 101.6cm. Herald St, London.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Maureen Paley: Wolfgang Tillmans (until 7th August 2016)

As far as contemporary photographic artists go, few are being celebrated and enjoying notoriety quite like Wolfgang Tillmans, who has his eighth solo exhibition at Maureen Paley, E2, featuring new and ongoing photography on the topic of borders, questioning the extent to which they define and shape our lives. The show is split between two gallery floors, and various series have been curated accordingly.

It could certainly be argued that photography is the most effective means of documenting and expressing the salient topic of borders and various forms of migration, and it has been utilised well in this exhibition. One of the first pieces of the show, 'Wako Book 5 / Border Installation' is a collection of 31 photographic prints which deal explicitly with border control and procedures in an airport setting. Conflict and tension are both implied in the works, but ultimately what holds the viewer's attention is their comforting banality. Not each image addresses the negative emotions and actions surrounding migration and its public reception, as we see a young child happily watching a maintenance worker, jet interiors and a man simply waiting, albeit visually anxiously, between flights. Challenging lazy and often archaic stereotypes on the topic is something done subtly in this work, instead honing in on human behaviours as a result of the issue. An example of this is an image of a vandalised cash point, conveying the ways in which significant political messages (and precarity, in the case of the upcoming European Union referendum in the UK) translate into daily life and attitudes.

Installation view: Wolfgang Tillmans. Maureen Paley, London.
Image courtesy of Maureen Paley

'The State We're In' is the focal point of the lower gallery space, in regards to its size, aesthetic and underlying message, Viewers are likely to be drawn to the familiarity of open water, as it is often something of a symbol of respite for the urban, technological way of life. However in the context of Tillmans' visual investigation into borders and subsequent limitations, we can see the space of open water becoming contentious and legally bound with national constraints on access. Given that water is now a symbol of asylum seeking and resulting tragic deaths, the scale of 'The State We're In' is certainly given new meaning.

The ground floor space potentially offers the most thought in respect to defining landscapes and spaces, such as the inclusion of 'Fire Island', which again portrays an idyllic image of an anonymous beach, void of human presence or intervention, except for one crucial element. While the palette of nature is neither predictable nor static, the photograph seems to be tampered with, using photo editing software. Altering the image in this way is perhaps the artist's most effective way of expressing the social construction of his various themes, most saliently immigration and integration. In addition to the evident intervention of human activity on the landscape, with its nod to global warming, 'Fire Island' also conveys the privilege of technology users in the contemporary world and its Information Age. Not only can we access images of artworks, vastly diverse geographical locations and the like, but we are able to edit them for specific purposes, and artists can express political, and perhaps more importantly, geopolitical, messages through aesthetics.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Fire Island, 2015. Inkjet print mounted on Dibond, 217cm x 145cm. Maureen Paley, London.

Contradictions between the natural and human worlds are produced further in the first floor gallery, where borders and social control are themes left more implicit. Ideas located in 'Fire Island' are addressed again in the final exhibition space, including 'Palm Tree, Sun Burst', where a small domestic plant is pictorially enlarged and in doing so, strongly resembles a tropical palm tree. It remains obvious, however, that the plant is immersed in a domestic office environment, alien to what it knows and what its natural state would desire. This tension and interaction between human and non-human life is compelling, and in this image the artist attempts an impartial viewpoint between the two parties. The politically charged nature of Tillmans' work is entirely unavoidable throughout the exhibition, especially with the inclusion of the artist's pro-EU poster campaign within the gallery space ( Using activism beyond a standardised (or 'passive') form in the art institution is certainly refreshing, and allows viewers to actively experience the thoughts and ideas of the artist in a wider, and certainly timely, context; the fact that Tillmans will have a retrospective of his work at Tate Modern in 2017 tells us that the future of these progressive means is positive.