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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.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Simon Lee Gallery: Toby Ziegler 'Post-Human Paradise' (until 12th November 2016)

The title of London-based artist Toby Ziegler's solo exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery, W1J, will be especially enticing to those with an interest in the art historical or theoretical side to contemporary art. Posthumanism is one school of thought among many which are prevalent in contemporary practice and theory, and Ziegler's marriage of this using Henri Matisse's 'Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude)' makes this an exciting and stimulating body of work focusing on the dehumanisation of the body, its aesthetics and the state of 'human nature' as a consequence of the unprecedented rise in technology use.

'Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude)' is the initial point of reference for the viewer, both in the gallery's description of the show and in its physical standing at the front of the gallery space. As part of the video installation 'Grammar of Equivalence', two screens are presented; the smaller of which showcases Matisse's 1936 painting, gradually coming out of focus and is reduced merely to its palette through being pixelated. This already gives the first glimpse of the posthumanism to which the artist is referring, in that humanity is becoming a pluralised form. Additionally this introduces us to Matisse's work at its most unadulterated, before Ziegler manipulates it for the first time in 'Post-Human Paradise', but certainly not the last. The second, and larger, screen of the installation is formatted in the style of Google Image Search, and showcases images with a similar palette.

Installation view: Toby Ziegler, Grammar of Equivalence, 2016. Modular LED screens and steel frames, 180cm x 200cm and 90cm x 120cm. Simon Lee Gallery, London. 

Using the colour pink in this way instantly evokes flesh, which is further supported by images of wounds, lips and skin itself. Placing them without context on the screen, and next to one another, provides the viewer with a stark reminder of the dehumanised nature of the body through images circulated online. Whether, outside the gallery parameters, this is through doctors providing medical advice via video calls or the leaking of naked photographs, we are reminded of the distinct lack of human presence through this piece, despite its biological depictions. 

Beyond the almost hypnotising trance of the video installation, the show becomes a series of oil paintings conveying similar ideas, but intriguingly does so without losing sight of Matisse's painting as motif. We notice how Ziegler has defaced, re-styled and interpreted 'The Pink Nude' through various aesthetic ideas of posthumanism; considering that said ideas also encompass a critique of technology is particularly interesting as aesthetically it appears that the artist has used spray paint, a distinctly urban means of rebelling against standardised practices and customs. However, the viewer is informed that all works beyond 'Grammar of Equivalence' are, in fact, oil paint on aluminium. Recreating the technological aesthetic is another way by which the show adds to the narrative of the relationship between artist and viewer, with technology as a medium. 

Toby Ziegler, The Spectre of Raw Nastiness, 2016. Oil on aluminium, 54.5cm x 59cm. Simon Lee Gallery, London.

Ziegler's choice to celebrate Matisse's painting while simultaneously deconstructing and defacing it subverts the image to create a bizarrely coherent analysis of the current state of the incomplete and fragmented body in contemporary art, further alluding to social issues involving aesthetics, such as race and gender inequalities. By using oil paint to form a new layer over the reproduced image of 'The Pink Nude', we see an analysis of the fetishistic voyeurism of the body, especially that of the female or person of colour. While the original painting focuses on large, curvaceous features and is suggestively, if not invitingly, positioned, Ziegler's body of work reminds us that this is merely an artistic impression, and demands analysis beyond the painting's epidermis, especially in a twenty-first century reading. 

Toby Ziegler, Carbon Chauvinism, 2016. Oil on aluminium, 180cm x 270cm. Simon Lee Gallery, London.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Lychee One: Marlene Steyn 'You Can't Cry When Your Head is Underwater' (until 12th November 2016)

With many exhibitions I currently find myself encountering, not all of which I document here, there seems to be a recurring motif of feminist values which are not necessarily striking, but instead implicitly pack some significance when it comes to highlighting female alliances and communities remaining dynamic in the name women's empowerment. At Lychee One, E2, South African artist Marlene Steyn's paintings convey female solidarity and preexisting trauma, without being overtly explicit. Using this strategy, her work speaks seemingly directly to a female viewer in a lyrical, compelling way.

Marlene Steyn, Cry Me a Swimming Pool. Lychee One, London. 

'Cry Me a Swimming Pool' is the first proof of the artist using dark humour in her work, and with the aesthetically charming, pastel palettes which are repeatedly used, this almost paradoxical effect ensures that the viewer is drawn to the intricate content of Steyn's paintings. 'Cry Me a Swimming Pool' twists the idiom 'cry me a river', which is a highly tongue-in-cheek phrase used as an expression of lack of sympathy. Interestingly, a swimming pool is a controlled, artificial environment in which water is invariably present, and notably the female figures are not drowning in their own tears, both individually and collectively, but are living within them, immersed in them. Each figure is identical, which potentially overlooks the significance of intersectional feminism in the age we are living in, however the bodily hairs prominent on each character's arms and legs are certainly an addition we are supposed to notice, showcasing the raw, honest space of this all-female environment.

The symbolism of water continues past the show's opening work and splashes into 'Wishy Washy Touchy Touchy', in which the artist extends her use of paint beyond the canvas, so that the territory of artist and viewer is blurred, and we are enveloped in the work. Again there is a sinister edge to this painting, as the central figure is nude therefore deemed vulnerable, regardless of its art historical or new-wave feminist interpretations. Further to being exposed, the water symbolism evokes feeling of drowning, contrary to the previous piece of idleness and partial submission. The medium of paint for these works also contributes much to the analysis of 'You Can't Cry When Your Head is Underwater', as it is now considered to be a dying form in contemporary art practice. Paint extending beyond the canvas as part of 'Wishy Washy Touchy Touchy' transforms the work into the realm of design, as the viewer then engages with the patterns adorning the gallery walls and their meanings.

Other ways of creating this affinity with Steyn's viewers is established through sculptural installation pieces, including 'All She Wanted Was to Be a Flying Buttress', which sees a hanging wooden swing beneath a small painted bronze sculpture of three sets of legs positioned one on top of the next. Using a swing makes reference to the child-like charm possessed by many of the pieces as an initial impression, and the imagery of water reemerges as the wooden swing is painted blue and the motion of the grain is reinforced with a darker shade of blue, thus successfully recreating the motif of artificial forms of water, further from the swimming pool. Unpacking this presents an interesting critique on the societal, as opposed to natural, discrimination of women and those identifying as female. Perhaps reining everything together is a small yet powerful piece on linen, 'Sister's Shoulders', subverting the familiar imagery of evolution to symbolise, instead, the transhistorical struggle of the female condition. Tragically, we are reminded that these same struggles and traumas are likely to outlive ourselves and transcend the generations, and at times it seems that there are limited practical, active solutions to the problems women face, which have not changed drastically throughout time. 

Marlene Steyn, Sister's Shoulders, 2016. Oil and mixed media on linen. Lychee One, London.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Limoncello Gallery: Alice Browne 'Forecast' (until 5th November 2016)

It is always a decidedly unique viewing experience when one encounters artwork of a highly personal nature, especially in solo shows. In Limoncello Gallery's new space, E1, London-based artist Alice Browne has created a body of paintings on the subject of personal development; while this is, indeed, personal and subjective, the issues at hand in Browne's work are highly relatable for the viewer. At a time when rents are rising at an unprecedented level and artist communities are being driven out of London, the impact of these socioeconomic factors on the individual are also important to consider.

'Forecast' is comprised of a series of paintings and a sculptural installation adopting familiar visual forms, that are ultimately influenced by Dante Alighieri's fourteenth century epic poem 'The Divine Comedy'; the stanza that we can see materialised successfully in the work, "When right before me I saw the human image / So twisted, that tears coming from the eyes / Rolled down into the crack of the buttocks", sets the foundations for the ways in which the artist has observed the skewed situation of human nature and behaviour in the twenty-first century. Browne juggles both the symptoms of modern life with its effects, but fittingly does not claim to provide a solution to the issues we face, in keeping with the transient state of space and time we find in cities such as London.

Installation view: Alice Browne, Forecast. Limoncello, London.
Image courtesy of Limoncello.

As far as the causes of the modern symptoms are concerned, the first painting in the show bears a prosaic and long title, which appears to be a horoscope, as it begins 'A lot of creative work may need to be finished by today, Gemini...'. Already providing the ambivalent lexicon of 'may' showcases the conflicting ideologies and forces guiding and confusing the average millennial, both on a daily basis and in formulating long-term visions and plans. 'A lot of creative work may need to be finished by today, Gemini...' includes the symbolism of crossed fingers, resembling the National Lottery logo, and a general sign of wishing oneself, or another person, good luck. However the sinister addition of these fingers being severed and isolated is very much reminiscent of the student protests of the last few years, signifying the dilemma of entering the education system at the elitist price of thousands of pounds worth of debt and minimised job prospects due to an uncertain economic climate. Interestingly the remainder of the canvas space is taken up by geometric shapes, a recurrent aesthetic in the exhibition, adopting a distinct window-like physicality, again stressing the seemingly endless possibilities for young people in the metropolis. Yet, Browne's windows do not have a view on the other side, instead merely a landscape of more disjointed, nonsensical shapes.

Away from the canvas, the show's only sculptural piece is 'The Shape of Things to Come', a series of printed vinyl, acrylic and rubber pieces situated on the floor, where the viewer must tactfully avoid them in circulating around the space. In doing so, we are reminded of the complexities faced by the millennial generation, and, rather explicitly, the lack of direction due to various elements such as precarious work, rent prices and other discriminatory forces holding back individuals and entire social groups alike.

'Forwards, Backwards' and 'Backwards, Forwards' also channel this idea coherently, in addition to the most explicit visual expression of the aforementioned passage from 'The Divine Comedy', where in each painting a human figure is shown with their torso and head in different directions, so that a forward-facing body has a head facing its background and vice versa. Browne's influences from cubism are evident in each painting in the show, yet the artist strips them from the movement's early twentieth century context, by physically separating the cube and mosaic-style shapes and giving them their own narrative within their respective canvases.

Installation view: Alice Browne, Forecast. Limoncello, London.
Image courtesy of Limoncello.

In contemporary art, there is often the feeling of a fear of classification, which certainly has its benefits; in doing so, artists are able to borrow ideas and aesthetic tendencies from other movements and media and adapt them in a way that is surely the whole point of contemporary art practice. Evolving ideas to fit with current political conditions allows a constant refreshing of ideas, in order to speak to various, but most importantly new and disengaged, audiences. The way in which this has been executed in Browne's work is surely successful, with the adaptation of potent art historical figures merged with themes and struggles which are synonymous with the tumultuous times of the twenty-first century.