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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. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Marsden Woo Gallery: Emma Woffenden 'Play-Fight' (until 5th January 2017)

The intimate space of Marsden Woo Gallery, EC2A, possesses a charm to it which seems ideal for experimental sculptural shows, and this is arguably the case in this exhibition of London and France-based artist Emma Woffenden, whose works in glass form an embodiment of what the gallery has deemed "the psychology of the body", which in itself conjures up ideas of gender dynamics and the role of the body in various social customs and ideologies.

Glass now finds itself an under-used, under-represented material in contemporary sculpture, instead more likely to be located in the realm of design, which is notoriously more difficult to exhibit than contemporary art. However with Woffenden's use of the material, we are reminded of its versatility, through the ways in which its utilitarian value is emphasised as a secondary thought to the artist's message, in this case the human body. Aesthetically, the use of glass and its sandblasted form through a mirror evokes a real psychoanalytical power behind 'Phantom', one of the show's first pieces. The awkward, disjointed posture of the glass figure is further made jarring to view due to its solid glass materiality. In addition to the work being angled on its side, with the glass figure's face leaning on the floor, this arresting piece puts the viewer in a transfixed state, unable to look away.

Installation view: Emma Woffenden, Phantom, 2016. Glass and mirror, 41.5cm x 31cm x 60cm. Marsden Woo Gallery, London. Copyright Philip Sayer, 2016. 

Woffenden's following 'Midwife' series takes the psychological impact build up thus far and places emphasis on the female condition. Some third-wave feminists might take issue with the female figure being reduced to its ability to bear children, but given that this is the primary distinction between the two sexes, the artist's depiction of this is interesting, especially as 'Midwife Drawing' deviates from Woffenden's glass specialism. Moving away from sculpture into drawing makes this particular image feel incredibly raw and intimate, not least because it shows a figure in stirrups. From the standpoint of contemporary art, where dual meaning and subjective ambiguity are paramount, it could be inferred that the artist is employing an alternative, amusing, angle of a sexual position in the painting. The use of brown paint challenges the feminine stereotype of pristine, delicate appearances.

While this idea of depicting the female condition might seem implicit or far-fetched to some, the idea of this body of work being inspired by the "psychology of the body" automatically makes this visual narrative a gendered one, especially when we think of the likes of Sigmund Freud. (Incidentally, much of 'Play-Fight' would not look out of place in London's Freud Museum's permanent collection) However, works such as 'Runner' change the pace of the exhibition yet again, as the sculpture is reminiscent of futuristic hybrid monsters taking over the world in an apocalyptic fiction. The open mouth of the creature enhances this idea, bearing a monstrous, aggressive snarling expression. Although we can identify this as a human emotional reaction, the figure is neither decidedly human nor non-human, and as such we can see the work as a potential contribution to the discussion on post-humanism. This is a fascinating topic presented through the lens of contemporary art, and is something I touched upon in my discussion of Toby Ziegler's work.

Installation view: Emma Woffenden, Runner, 2016. Glass and mixed media, 135cm x 56cm x 35cm. Marsden Woo Gallery, London. Copyright Philip Sayer, 2016. 

The human elements of Woffenden's glass sculptures have an eerie sense of distance and lack of anecdote about them, almost as if she is inviting the viewer to contribute their own lives and experiences to the work, thus developing a performative element. Showcasing artificial body parts through sculpture is an effective way of the artist forming a rapport between her practice and viewing audience. Ideas surrounding 'reality' and social constructs are explored in the show, seeming most prevalent given the 'post-truth' era in which we are now supposedly living. Marsden Woo's description of the show discusses the "emotions conveyed through gesture", which makes us think about gesture versus language as communication tools, and where contemporary art sits between these two classifications.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Skarstedt: Cindy Sherman and David Salle 'History Portraits and Tapestry Paintings' (until 26th November 2016)

Inaugurating their new space in St James by Mayfair, Skarstedt, SW1A, has put on a show of two highly celebrated American artists, Cindy Sherman and David Salle. Sherman in particular has gained notoriety for her authority both behind and in front of the camera, as is demonstrated in this exhibition. The two artists were part of the 'Pictures Generation' movement in America, as a result of artists being disillusioned with the lack of success of social and political transformation, and we can identify Sherman and Salle parodying these systems. Of course, the artists now making work in Trump's America will be in a similar mindset, and we are likely to see more revolutionary ideas and themes presented in contemporary art.

Skarstedt's new gallery is split into three rooms, and the show has been curated in such a way that there is not a significant shift between these spaces, in relation to content; the show is split evenly between Salle and Sherman's work, in order to provide a thorough narrative effect, where the photographic works complement the paintings clearly. Furthermore, this is certainly a well thought-out exhibition, where there are distinct similarities between the artists' work, not merely that they produced work at the same time in the same country. 'Young Kraimer' by David Salle is possibly the first piece to command the viewer's attention; his distinctive use of collage-style composition feels very much at home in a media-saturated world. The artist gives us several layers simultaneously, which is a theme running through the exhibition. The split between a female and male being depicted for longevity, through the form of the portrait, is also highly telling of the almost transhistoric gender divide.

David Salle, Young Kraimer, 1989. Diptych - acrylic and oil on canvas with three inserted panels, 213.4 cm x 265.4cm. Skarstedt, London and New York. 

Alongside the large painting are two from Sherman's 'History Portraits' series; the use of portraits are certainly intriguing in the show, as in contemporary art they are used primarily to make references to, or provide satire on, historical scenarios. By the artist using her own body in front of the camera, Sherman ensures that she is controlling the sense of history and contemporaneity in her works. 'Untitled #216' is no exception to this, as the masterly painting feel of the piece is troubled from its legitimacy by the artificial breast that is poking out of the female figure's outfit, as she looks ready to breastfeed her baby, who is also made of plastic. Combining amusing features with the seriousness of a portrait gives the viewer much to consider throughout the exhibition.

The layering prevalent in both artists' work is startlingly in 'Untitled #216', where the contemporary and the historical merge. Again in Salle's neighbouring artwork, 'Lampwick's Dilemma', there are elements that have been composed together in a visual collage; viewing the painting atomistically is not the most effective way of regarding Salle's practice, instead we must seek that which brings the piece together. 'Lampwick's Dilemma' sees the artist embrace portraits of female models and dancers in action, almost pasted on top of an historical portrait. The flow of progress is therefore evident and we are permitted a glimpse into the potential future of the contemporary portrait.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #206, 1989. Chromogenic colour print in artist's frame, 171.4cm x 114.3cm. Skarstedt, London and New York.

Deception and illusion are certainly recognisable elements of the contemporary portrait, especially when we think of selfie culture and Instagram boasting. This is a tool which Cindy Sherman has utilised well throughout her career, inspiring a mixed critique from viewers. The aesthetic power and symbolism of a female artist becoming a character and posing for a photograph seems incredibly simplistic, yet Sherman's work has garnered iconic status and has been received favourably time and time again at auction. Being a woman adds considerable weight to her work, as she questions gender roles and privileges by dressing as men; works such as 'Untitled #206' expose gender binaries as the viewer questions how incoherent an image this would be if the original subject were a female. Of course, the nobility had portraits taken, as seen in Sherman's other work, however the pure indulgence and imperialist power evident in the 1989 print ensures that the topics and challenges present are not overlooked. 

David Salle, Tiny in the Air, 1989. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 238.8cm x 345.4cm. Skarstedt, London and New York.