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Barbican Art Gallery, London UK Sam Burcher and Jane Wallace review.

October 2017

This is the first large-scale exhibition in the UK of the work of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Clearly, something is amiss that not a single work by such a prolific 20th Century artist is held in a public collection here. Interest in Basquiat has piqued since his Air Power (1984) sold as part of the late David Bowie’s art collection for £7.1 million at Sothebys in London, November 2016.

There are over a hundred startling paintings on three floors plus film of the artist speaking to camera. A strikingly prodigious young talent, it is fitting that his work has been gathered from a variety of sources for an international audience. His vibrant, raw imagery, abounding with fragments of bold capitalised text offer insights into his encyclopaedic interests ranging from anatomy to symbolism, skilfully integrated into paintings and collages. Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits (1982) is a good example.

Coming of age in the late 1970’s in the post-punk underground art scene in downtown New York led to a meeting with Andy Warhol and collaborating on murals and installations for the Mudd Club, Area and Palladium nightclubs, which typifies his role as metteur en scene of this particular era in modern art. Famous (1982) conveys the Warhol connection, whilst Untitled (1980) conveys the mood.  

King of the Zulus (1984-1985) is a noteworthy collage portrait of Louis Armstrong and his song of the same name in bright yellow, red, green and black. Ishtar (1983) is a triptych depicting the Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility.  King Zulu (1986) refers to Jazz legend Miles Davies and golden trumpets scream in a calm sea of blue. I don’t know how to describe my work, it’s like asking Miles how does your horn sound? “ Basquiat said. 

Basquiat lived homeless in a park as a teenager, exposing himself to primary experiences and coming to the media’s attention in 1978, when he teamed up with schoolmate Al Diaz to graffiti enigmatic statements across the city under the collective pseudonym SAMO© a short form for ‘same old, same old shit’.  Musical collaborations with Debbie Harry and the burgeoning Hip Hop scene reveal unparalleled artistic freedom in a time of fear and poverty.

Much has been made of the fact that this young black artist had no formal training. But video footage  is both touching and revealing. His obvious discomfort and silence when the interviewer tries to get to the root of why he makes art is not a sign that he is inarticulate. Rather, it communicates that an artist of Basquiat’s calibre should not have to justify himself, his reticence perhaps demonstrating he knows that.  

Additional film footage shows Jean-Michel incessantly painting and drawing and not taking himself so seriously, whilst written and audio examples of his powerful trochaic poetry offer further insight into what was indisputably the life, albeit a short one, of a master.  

 

Boom For Real runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 28 Jan 2018.

 

30 Sept 2017 

The V&A distinguishes itself with yet another fantastic exhibition, Jane Wallace reviews.

SalomeToday marks the preview of Opera:Passion Power and Politics, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s autumn exhibition in collaboration with the Royal Opera House. Probably the coolest museum in the world, the V&A is placing itself at the cutting edge of art, fashion, history and more recently music. Under the direction of Nicholas Coleridge, the Chair of Trustees, Conde Nast Chairman and ancestor of the poet, the V&A is a veritable goldmine.

It was in 2013 that the now famous David Bowie Is exhibition blossomed, decorating the hallowed walls with everything David Bowie. From stage costumes to blotchy penned lyrics,to “Life on Mars” Major Tom to much more, all charting the seamless shift of personas from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke et al. To be there was to know this chameleon-like pop star so much more intimately. Mothers from the provinces brought their teenage sons to peer into the memorabilia. 

Savage Beauty, Europe’s first major retrospective of Alexander Macqueen’s exquisite couture, followed hot on Bowie’s heels in March 2015 breaking all previous records for ticket sales. In all, 493,043 people saw the show and over the last two weekends of its run the V&A remained open all night.  

In 2016, came You Say You want a Revolution, Records and Rebels 1966-1970 charting the rise of popular music and its culture from the Sixties, through the Seventies with its San Francisco Flower Power influences to the Vietnam War in visuals. Hendrix, Joplin and Woodstock providing the soundtrack through the headphones changing tracks as you move around the show.

The Pink Floyd Exhibition, Their Mortal Remains, arrived in spring and has twice been extended by public demand. Once again the V&A’s twist is in the audiovisuals, the album covers, the music videos, the live concert performances flash and zoom around the rooms.  Would-be psychedelic rock millennials can dream to the original studio sound recording of Dark Side of the Moon whist watching a rainbow pass through a triangular prism in a mesmeric laser light show.

Opera takes place in the brand new Sainsbury Gallery, it’s courtyard is made from porcelain tiles. A delicate start to this exhibition charting the rise of opera in Venice with Monteverdi, featuring charming artefacts from the period. Galleons roll on the waves of the reproduced 18th century stage for Handel’s Rinaldo, which charms and beguiles. Opera races on to Vienna, Milan, Paris, Dresden and finally Russia, ending in a shocking film projection of Oscar Wilde’s Salome in David McVicar’s production of the Richard Strauss opera with the heroine covered in blood.

The V&A stamp is all over this show including spectacular paintings by Degas and Manet. Be prepared to experience all the highs and lows of the genre of opera in this lavish production.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics at the V&A, in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, sponsored by Societe Generale, from 30 Sept 2017 – 25 Feb 2018, vam.ac.uk/opera 

Edited by Sam Burcher (c) 2017

29th September 2017

Art witnessIconoclasts explores the experimental and often transformational practices of thirteen groundbreaking artists inviting us to engage with what modern day iconoclasm might be. Whether these talented artists are iconoclasts of 21st Century remains to be seen. Meanwhile, all are driven by an urge to produce art in an intriguingly diverse way. The sumptuous space inside Sloane Square’s Saatchi Gallery provides an excellent setting to discover the variety of work on offer.

A standout three-dimensional piece is Echoes of the Kill by Alexi Williams Wynn. She uses a special blend of wax, steel and wood to describe the deepest hollows of cow and horse lungs. She represents them as translucent coral, a golden forest or synaptic bronchioles of higher forms of intelligence. In fact, Williams has been lucky with lungs, recently given the chance to open the dead body of a Narwal washed up in Belgium and given one of its lungs to create art with. An upcoming solo show of her works in Ghent will feature an installation including the whale lung.

If you like textiles, you’ll love gay textiles! Josh Fought creates calendars, memorials and waterfalls from glittery pink weaves and from indigo hemp. His large tapestries are adorned with self-help books, affirmations, time-faces, nail polish, gloves, pretzels and badges in the most delightful way. He combines Duchampian-punky everyday found objects with the language of a community.

Renne So’s innovative and playful knitted portraits explore the transformation of visual identity from illustration to ancient civilisations. She uses a 1980’s knitting machine to create motifs as diverse as a Victorian top hat to the curls of an Assyrian beard. Black outlines filled with flat blocks of colour portray mysterious genre scenes, the central character repeated throughout her portraits inhabits a infinite world of negative space.

Of the painters, Danny Fox is probably the name to watch. His large-scale oils present the human figure as hero, following the history tradition of painting. A large portrait of a man on a horse, The Salt that Killed the Ramen, evokes the bright colours of Mexico as does Ice Cream Seller. The latter particularly has a provincial feel, except the lone man is pushing an ice-cream cart instead of a plough, so has been modernised in that way. Fox has travelled far and wide from his birthplace of St Ives creating allegorical and representational work.

Another painter playing with history is Makiko Kudo, who recalls traditional Japanese prints and inhabits them with dreamy, Manga-like characters. He says, “Constructing a painting is similar to dreaming. Shuffling different landscapes, creating stories and connecting them with emotion and imagination, like a collage or a jigsaw puzzle. His watery landscapes evoke skilful impressions of Monet.

Thomas Mailaender’s Illustrated People (2014) are edgy, photographic prints of bodies that bring a new and surprising meaning of the phrase “double-take.” He burns the original negatives of past social conflicts onto the skins of unknown subjects with a UV lamp and photographs the temporary results. The strips of film stand out from the patches of red-raw skin on white flesh, an example of Mailaender’s fascination with the wrong things in the wrong place. His compulsive breakdown of human beauty is inventive, amusing and thought provoking.

Other exhibitors are Maurizio Anzeri, Matthew Chambers, Daniel Crews-Chubb, Aaron Fowler, Dale Lewis. Kate Mccquire and Douglas White.

The show runs until 7th January 2018 at the Saatchi Gallery, London, free entry.

hokusai-wave-kanagawa1st July 2017 

The celebrated Japanese artist known as Hokusai (1760-1849) believed that when humans reached the age of 61, their life cycle began again. It follows that his best known work, Great Wave (1831), was produced when he was in his 70’s. Changing his name many times during his long lifetime, he settled on the name he called himself after the North Star, also meaning North Studio.

Hokusai lived in Edo, the former name for Tokyo, with his daughter Oi. They were constantly moving due to poverty. A fervent Buddhist, he produced hanging scrolls of Monk Nicheran sitting on a rock (1811). Everywhere he went, he recited a mantra. 

His most notable works utilised Prussian Blue, a newly acquired import into the Japanese market in the early 1900’s. He blended this pigment with indigo to produce the finest and widest shades of blue. It was the series of 36 views of Mount Fuji that finally gave him a living and made his name. Fuji features in the background of Great Wave and prominently in Red Fuji where the mountain is coloured a fiery orange-red.

At the end of his life he had more than 200 students and would throw his drawings out of the window as good luck charms, fortunately these were retrieved, along with many of his letters. When he was 90, he wrote that just 5 or 10 more years of life would make him the perfect artist. But, he already was a great artist, his unceasing quest to understand form enabled him to recreate the unlimited perfection of nature with a brushstroke.

Hokusai believed that all phenomena have spirit and is interconnected. You just have to look at his nature paintings such as Peonies with Canary, Azalea and Lesser Cuckoo (1834) and his series of Waterfalls to see that. He attributed life-giving powers to Mount Fuji, his talisman and symbol of immortality. He died at 90, his last painting a poignant scene of the spirit of a black dragon ascending his beloved mountain. 

 

An exhibition of his work is on display at the British Museum until 18th August 2017

September 2016

2016 is the 40th anniversary of Punk Rock and the British Library has a modern collection of punk and new-wave memorabilia on show.

Andy and the clashBy his own admission curators are always trying to draw attention to their collections. So, an exhibition celebrating punk’s 40th anniversary is Andy Linehan's opportunity to show that the British Library collects modern material as well as Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland and the Magna Carta, all recent exhibitions.

The British Library sound archives are amongst the most wide ranging in the world and mirror what the written word archive does. Its ambition to get hold of a copy of everything published in the UK relies on donations from record companies. Andy explained in the sunlit piazza overlooked by Paolozzi’s four metre high bronze statue of Isaac Newton measuring time, inspired by a William Blake  engraving how the exhibition came about.

“We utilised our own collection of records, fanzines, music press, flyers and personal documents, he said. "But some of the material, for example the letter from EMI Records sacking Glen Matlock, the original bass player with the Sex Pistols, we borrowed from England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage’s punk archives stored in Liverpool John Moore’s University.”

How easy was it to organise and who has seen it?

“It’s a complete mix of material and that’s one of the nice things about it. People of an age reminiscing about their youth and younger people discovering something completely new.  

Yesterday someone walked through with a couple of kids aged around 6 years old and one put on the headphones to listen to the Pistols and started reacting to the music, so the idea that kids can get something out of it is brilliant. We got lots of press interest in Japan, France, and America, so tourists put us on their ‘to see’ list."

Read more: Punk 1976-78

Tower of Babel 3
London, November 2015

Barnaby Barford has made his very own Tower of Babel out of 3000 bone china bricks piled high in the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance Gallery. Each brick of the six metre high installation depicts a shop front around London photographed by the artist. At the bottom are the abandoned shops and pound shops resulting from austerity and at the top are the high-end boutiques catering for luxury-minded consumers.

It took Barnaby two years to produce the bricks, which represent the great British public’s obsession with shopping. And, it’s a playful swipe at consumer culture being a new form of religion, and a way to find heaven.

I met up with him in front of his Tower smiling and meeting people, full of his own invention, but with a slight hangover. And who can blame him, when he has already sold two thirds of his bricks which rise incrementally the higher you go up the tower: starting at £250, and rising to £6,000 a pop - a clever blend of art and commerce.

It’s great to see a young, living artist enjoying his sculpture in-situ and making money at the same time. Like any good work of art there was a buzz of positive energy around it that really got people talking. My friend and cultural companion Jani Rad's favourite shop Moi 2 is featured about a third of the way up the tower and shop owner Glyn has already brought the miniature version, which she is proudly displaying in her boutique.

Barnaby’s fine bone china bricks are for sale at the V& A’s online shop here: http://thetowerofbabel.vandashop.com/shop/0002

 

Read more: Barnaby Barford's Tower of Babel

London, November 2015  chanel 1

Thank God for Charles Saatchi, despite his wife-hating ways! Say what you like, but yet again he has done the art loving public a great service with his beautiful ‘new’ gallery on Kings Road, Chelsea. Housed in the old Duke of York’s headquarters in a grand, Grade II listed building, it is a far cry from his first gallery space, a disused garage in Boundary Road, North West London. 

In contrast with the worthy, but slightly uptight V&A, where gallery attendants go apoplectic if you so much as point at an exhibit, and photography is verboten, the Saatchi is steeped in cool. The sensory experience starts in the wild garden (designed by the Rich Brothers) planted with bees in mind, where bird song piped through overhead speakers impart a sonic tranquility and trees with butterfly leaves lead you to the entrance framed with Doric columns.

I have come to see Mademoiselle Prive, a retrospective of the work of designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971). There is no entry price and the staff, who you do want to speak to you, are ferrying about in black uniforms wearing head microphones. The exhibition begins with a reconstruction of Chanel’s Paris showroom on 31 Rue Cambon, its sweeping staircase lined with multitudinous mirrors indicating her rise from back-room seamstress to influential couturier. In the ‘Deauville hat shop’, her trademark floppy fedora hats are assembled so that an animated miniature Coco, dressed in signature skirt suit and pearls, climbs out from one hat box and walks elegantly across the stand to another. Her disembodied voice informs the space that her relationship with British aristocrat Boy Capel was the catalyst to her opening shop and the success that followed.

Read more: Mademoiselle Prive at the Saatchi Gallery, London