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Saturday, 11 February 2017

GRAD: Irina Korina 'Destined to be Happy' (until 28th February 2017)

Site-specific installations are always an interesting concept for contemporary art galleries, as the value of an artist's project is thrown into the visitor experience, as we are left wondering what will become of the work(s) after the closing of the exhibition. At GRAD, W1W, (Gallery for Russian Art and Design), Irina Korina has produced exactly this, an installation which inhabits the space so effectively that its tones of film set design transform both the gallery and the viewer's sensory experience entirely. Part of this transformation takes the form of the rule that the viewer must enter through the gallery's fire exit. From this point, a dark tunnel, resembling a bomb shelter, leads us into the main exhibition, where sound, sculpture and installation come together to form an unsettling yet familiar realm.

Corrugated metal paves the path, and this material is used again in an upright position to disorientate as we try to understand and navigate Korina's work. A jarring soundtrack, to the point of often being excruciating, has equal presence to the transfixing sculpture. As the space draws you down a narrow route, the almost-reflection of the metal fixtures provide a bizarre illusion that again still feels highly familiar. It is at this point of bewilderment that we find the sculptures, positioned and curated in such a way that coincides brilliantly with the surreal environment and soundscape.

Installation view: Irina Korina, Destined to be Happy, 2016. GRAD, London.

Each sculpture is comprised of a shape or element bearing a human expression with hyperreal legs highly reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. Similarly, Korina's influences from fairytales and folklore are evident, although they are subverted and made increasingly sinister with the updated reference of the desolate post-internet world. There is also a strong criticism on mankind's attitudes to nature, as we can infer from the stripped trees heavily present in the space and the various sculptures. 'The Tear Drop', for instance, lies with the back of its head resting on the ground and a cigarette in its mouth, almost the ultimate sign of submission and despair, on a micro level. Although the exhibition feels like a fantastical, dystopian bubble, there are constant reminders of the deeply problematic reality of our contemporary world. The cigarette in the mouth of 'The Tear Drop' is a small reflection of the various toxic elements of the human condition, whether it is addiction in its various forms, our lifestyles creating catastrophic climate change, or precarious working conditions, to name a few.

Installation view: Irina Korina, The Tear Drop, 2016. Upholstery foam, wire frame, spray contact adhesive, glue, mixed fabrics, dimensions variable. GRAD, London. 

Another of Korina's sculptures is 'The Heart', which is being widely used on the show's promotional material. Its wide-eyed, cartoonish expression, alongside the exhibition's title, makes the viewer wonder what happiness means to the artist, or more importantly what it should mean in this microcosm at GRAD. The addictions 'The Tear Drop' contends with do not convey pleasure of any kind, likewise with the naive smile on the face of 'The Heart'. We are left with the feeling that the technological age gives the facade of its people having a vast expanse of knowledge, when in fact much of this information is not legitimate or, indeed, useful; the 'post-truth' world is certainly hinted at, without explicit references. Equally, Korina's alternative entrance into the gallery via the fire exit suggests that the artist is transporting us to an alternate universe, yet along with Sergey Kasich's complementing soundtrack which is filled with typing and clicking sounds and techno scores, we are constantly reminded that this monochromatic world is very real today. 

Installation view: Irina Korina, Destined to be Happy, 2016. GRAD, London. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Edel Assanti: Sheida Soleimani 'To Oblivion' (until 18th February 2017)

A year of drastic change awaits us in 2017's political realm, and it is entirely foolish for the art world not to reflect this. Sheida Soleimani's work presented at Edel Assanti, W1T, depicts women unlawfully imprisoned and executed in Iran. Given the small, niche area of this issue, giving these women a face and such a bold presence is a highly powerful tool in the gallery space, where their images become immersed in the artist's environment and our attention is fixed firmly on them.

Two media choices are present in the show: photographic framed prints on the walls and the sculptural 'effigies' dotted around the space, with the same women's faces printed, but this time at the height of a kneeling adult, which is symbolic and a poignant addition to the exhibition. Edel Assanti's curatorial strategy in itself enhances the work greatly, as viewers must navigate uncomfortably, which is exactly the initial point of the exhibition: the artist wants to stir you, to irk you, to open your eyes. The first piece the viewer encounters is 'Zahra', a cotton sculptural piece almost hidden in the corner; Soleimain's decision to name each piece after the female subject makes concrete the idea of encouraging not mere sympathy for, but solidarity with, the women of Iran. This is not a television campaign for a charity helping those overseas; the damage is done and the viewer has to listen. Zahra's face is smiling, and the gallery press release tells us that these low-resolution images have been sourced from either government archives or more informal locations, such as the victims' families. It is most likely that Zahra's is from the latter.

Sheida Soleimani, Sakineh, 2015. Archival pigment print, 101.6cm x 68.6cm. Edel Assanti, London.

The contrast between the facial expressions, despite the similar narratives behind each piece, is another aspect of the exhibition's potency, and has a harrowing impact. As we contemplate Zahra's smiling face and find ourselves desperate to know and understand her story, we turn to the next image, this time of 'Sakineh', and are again reminded that these are real life accounts, not something to be fetishised or made into a commodity. Where it could be argued that the art product is in fact a commodity, Soleimain's intentions are very clearly to tell the stories of the Iranian women and highlight its gravely flawed, or at least weak, legal system. Sakineh's facial expressions and gestures leave the viewer certain of the artist's desire to raise awareness of gender inequalities and atrocities in Iran.

Exploring these themes is exposed as necessary at this time of 'post-truth' and lost narratives, and the artist's brief showcase of torture and a gravely flawed legal system in Iran is shocking for the viewer. Acknowledging that the artist has taken images from the internet highlights the vast dissemination of information and data online, yet how this is often purposefully ignored due to various political agendas. Ways in which the images should be interpreted through a Western, or at least non-Iranian, gaze is an unavoidable effect of this London location, and what we choose to do with this visual piece of evidence surely reflects our own values.

Sheida Soleimani, Maryam, 2016. Archival pigment print, 101.6cm x 68.6cm. Edel Assanti, London.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

New Art Projects: Adam Hennessey 'SMILE' (until 4th March 2017)

At the start of the year, there is often a focus on emerging artists, and this solo show at New Art Projects, E8, continues this trend. Adam Hennessey has just completed a year at Turps Banana Art School, which specialises in training the painters of tomorrow, and 'SMILE' offers a glimpse into the future of the medium, which is especially interesting given its recent renaissance as a response to narratives suggesting that painting being a dead form.

Hennessey's works, over the space of three rooms, immediately baffle the viewer in that we are never sure whether the artist's intentions are serious or fun; indeed, it becomes apparent that this polarity is trivial and actually restrains our enjoyment of the work. Room 3 is confusingly the first room, and presents an interesting introduction to Hennessey's work. Paintings here highlight commonplace objects and sights; again alluding to the silly versus the politically serious, the mundane is made beautiful through paint and similarly the beautiful materiality of paint is transformed into a depiction of something that is both relatable and at times amusing. Many examples of this are found in Room 3, including 'Worm on Banana', which is only truly decipherable from its title, as the piece has the appearance of an old-school video game, or a sporadic pattern sample. With this knowledge, the disgusting reality becomes something normal, acceptable and provokes discussion on why we have this response to the work.

Adam Hennessey, Worm on Banana, 2016. Acrylic on paper, 65cm x 50cm. New Art Projects, London.

The show's eponymous painting, 'SMILE' is rightly its focal point, as it conveys a complexity which again bridges the mundane, or over-used through popular culture, and a serious message. With eight yellow, emoji-style smiley faces crammed into one canvas, their respective expressions are manipulated as a result. Smiley faces are more recognisable than ever in this cartoon form, not only as the symbol of LSD, but in the way they now blend into everyday lexicon through mobile phones and social media. 'SMILE' could also be seen to allude to mental health issues, in the way that each face is cramped and competing for space, much like the urban condition and problem of overpopulation, causing increasing tensions and frustrations. Likewise, its subtitle could be 'The Many Faces of Happiness', highlighting how mental health issues are still stigmatised to the extent that we find ourselves scrutinised, analysed and often entirely superficially performed.

Adam Hennessey, SMILE, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 155cm x 110cm. New Art Projects, London.  

Outside Room 1, there is an interesting acceleration in terms of addressing salient social issues. Where they had been largely avoided in Room 3 in favour of tranquil banality, the wonderful 'Man Perspective' leads the way in showcasing what is happening in Hennessey's world, which we all share. Three shadows of male figures face in the same direction and bear sweatbands across their brows, much like professional athletes. Without identifying the men present, the combination of the title and this heroic stature seems to be a satire on male dominance, as the men almost resemble classical Greek sculpture. Equally, it is almost as if the men are looking to an uncertain future, perhaps one where the patriarchy is challenged and torn down. Perhaps.

From this point of deliberating as to what Hennessey's intentions are, Room 2 sobers the viewer up from the cartoonish fun of other paintings on show, while maintaining the artist's inspired yet distinguishable style. 'Fatlamb', the first piece in the room, highlights in no uncertain terms the plight of beloved animals in the face of mass consumption of animal products. This is another incredibly apt point of  the timing of 'SMILE', as January often brings hope of ethical changes, such as Veganuary and, more generally, new year's resolutions. 'Fatlamb' depicts a drastically and unnaturally overweight but small lamb, a powerful image again highlighting the vulnerability of animals against the ruthlessness of the industry destroying them. Similarly, 'Sheep Murder' sees the artist using paint as a decorative tool for an intense message, which does not always require explicit imagery.

This marriage of the mundane and the politically potent ensures that the latter receives the correct reaction from the viewer. All paintings in this show, regardless of which category they fit into, are pleasurable to the eye, and feel refreshing and familiar at the same time, which makes for a highly accessible exhibition.

Adam Hennessey, Sheep Murder, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 150cm x 120cm. New Art Projects, London.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Roman Road: Natalia LL 'Probabilities' (until 14th January 2017)

Natalia LL is a name that many gallery-goers will not be familiar with, yet she is one of the pioneers of feminist art in Poland, and this show at Roman Road, E2, is a brief celebration of the artist's work from the early 1970s; the video, photography and text-based pieces still feel invigorating, cheeky and as if they still have something to say in 2017.

The recurring figure present in these works is a young female with blonde hair tied into two ponytails either side of her head; this style can be instantly considered an immature one, and is the first point of discussion when viewing LL's work, as the schoolgirl character is repeated but never developed. As we will see, the artist amusingly pillories male sexual fantasies by testing the audience's responses to the gestures completed by the protagonist. Using the wittingly phallic symbol of the banana, and later a frankfurter sausage, the woman we identify solely from her hair colour stated in the artwork's title is choreographed to place the banana in and around her mouth suggestively. The element of the work's place in feminist history, or at least linear time scales, is interesting throughout, as it is situated post-sexual revolution and pre-internet pornography, resulting in the artist creating a space where she is free to express control of women's collective sexual depiction. Asking how effective the performance of these gestures are would would certainly make for an insightful debate.

Natalia LL, Consumer Art (Blonde Girl with Banana), 1972. Hand printed photograph on archival paper, 28cm x 39.4cm x 2cm framed. Roman Road, London. 

Thinking about authority and ownership is a common motif in contemporary art, but the ways in which Natalia LL has addressed sovereignty over one's own body and how images of such may be disseminated or misconstrued are at times subtle. 'Natalia Silnia (!)' is a long (840cm x 80cm) printed vinyl, which hangs at the gallery ceiling and is draped down the wall and half way across the floor space, comprised of the artist's name at the top and bottom, but in between the letters are scrambled to, according to the gallery, create over a thousand word combinations. While for some artists such a piece would be viewed as a conceited project, where their name is concretely the beginning and the end, its inclusion in 'Probabilities' resonates with increasing opportunities for women, and prompts ideas of both collective and individual action, given that a thousand words with as many meanings can be found within the name of the artist.

The two video works cleverly continue to employ the visuals and ideas we have seen in the artist's oeuvre, yet are certainly more comparable to other feminist works, and what we might imagine feminist practices to involve. It is an ongoing discussion as to whether exposing the naked female form on film or in a photograph is a help or a hindrance to the feminist cause, with some compelling arguments on both sides, so it is interesting to see these results from the 1970s. In the video work 'Impressions', a female figure is seen handling her own breasts, before bouncing up and down in full view of the camera. Interestingly this figure is faceless throughout, and where the Blonde Girl with Banana has focus solely on her face and their suggestive gestures, at this point the viewer cannot escape the sight of these anonymous breasts. Although this represents objectification by selectively excluding any individual traits, in doing so we find a harsh critique of said objectification, as the body could belong to anyone and, to an extent, could be argued to be representing all women in its anonymity.

Natalia LL, Impressions (Still), 1973. DVD (from the original material 16mm), 3 minutes 46 seconds. Roman Road, London.

At a time where the feminist movement is struggling with internal fractures and fluctuating levels of success, retroactively viewing the work of Natalia LL not only serves to highlight how society has changed in the 40+ years since they were made, but equally how little has changed. Potentially the work has more potency for an early twenty-first century audience, as we are accustomed to the imagery used and can take the content further through deeper analysis. Roman Road's exhibition is a wonderful platform for artist and viewer alike; the former to showcase the Polish feminist art scene and gain further exposure in the UK, and for the latter a chance to witness a pioneer in avant-garde feminist art. 

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Marlborough Contemporary: Charlie Roberts 'Juicy' (until 14th January 2017)

For this interesting setup at Marlborough Contemporary, W1S, Oslo-based artist Charlie Roberts has formulated a new body of work which the gallery have curated in a Salon-style, where works are sold off and replaced by others, to keep the show feeling fresh and constantly in flux. Its title is taken from Notorious B.I.G's 1994 track and sets the tone for what the gallery states is the artist merging hip-hop subculture aesthetics with historical references; while the former is at times difficult to spot, Roberts' painting technique ensures that the work feels exciting and fast-paced, and the simultaneously contemporary and historical visuals are highly effective.

Charlie Roberts, Juicy 163, 2016. Mixed media on paper, 59cm x 84cm. Marlborough Contemporary, London.

Given the gallery's location in art-centric Mayfair, the novel yet casual appearance of the Salon-style is certainly interesting; the artist's bright, vivid palettes ensure that the viewer's attention is solely on the work present and their ideas. Beyond the theme of hip-hop, Roberts devotes much of his practice to primitive aesthetics and personification of animals, which, in their contemporary forms, are refreshed and certainly reach new audiences in Mayfair, with hints of magical realism. 'Juicy 163', for example, bewilders the viewer by incorporating elements of a lion and a man, to create something new which bizarrely does not seem impossible or frightening. 

There are many popular culture symbols used in the show, and the vibrancy of the paint highlights the schism between the high- and low-culture in art; the solution is that contemporary art has parodied and pilloried this idea so many times that the two are easily blended together, which as a result makes the art market a tricky yet intriguing place of investment and movement. Alongside imagery of the nude and evidence of a skewed relationship between man and nature, Roberts' work is an investigation of the human psyche and our attitudes towards that with which we coexist. 

Charlie Roberts, Juicy 224, 2016. Mixed media on paper, 59cm x 84cm. Marlborough Contemporary, London.

Interestingly, although the artist has a strongly unique style to his work, the various and diverse influences ensure that a range of themes are addressed in the show. Marlborough Contemporary states that Roberts is highly influenced by hip-hop, and does not underestimate its value for contemporary popular culture. Art and music are certainly intertwined and trends are often located in both domains, such as 'vapourwave', which is inclusively prevalent.  

As many galleries take a breather over Christmas, Marlborough Contemporary presents a show which is fun and at times silly, but uses paint almost as a disguise from which to unlock more serious tones, such as the perils of nature and animal life, as in one 'Juicy' image we witness a naked female figure watching on as another figure appears to be drowning. There are a great deal of modern art influences in Charlie Roberts' work which will please many visitors and will surely add some festive joy to proceedings.