Thursday, 28 March 2013

Review of Julia Pfeiffer: Figures of the Thinkable at Maria Stenfors

Julia Pfeiffer: Figures of the Thinkable
Maria Stenfors
27 February – 6 April 2013

Walking in to Maria Stenfors’ lofty gallery, you are currently faced with an amazing sight: a wall of clay, cracked and dessicated, barren and bare (Building the Labyrinth, 2013). It could be one of Alberto Burri’s Cretti, but it’s not. It’s a shrine to all that has been, has failed to be, could still be, but isn’t yet. Representing the full life cycle of her works, Berlin-based artist Julia Pfeiffer has constructed this wall of clay, slathered on to the existing gallery wall with thick palette knife strokes, out of discarded off cuts from failed and unwanted works, which she allowed to dry right out, before adding water and remoulding them almost as paint. Underneath are layers of actual paint, which could themselves be depicting an image – but who can know, or ever will? The wall is heavy, not only with the weight of the material, but with the possible figures and forms that abide therein.

And as you stand and ponder the imponderable, you are, yourself, being watched. For behind you, lined up in an intimidating row, are eight eyes, staring penetratingly ahead (Iris Studies, 2013). Made of ceramic, and glazed with special pens which allow colour to be applied in a painterly manner, these extracted eyeballs gaze voyeuristically, dreaming the dream of what might have been and what may still develop. Removed from their surrounds, they are no longer figurative, but purely symbolic. Freud, no doubt, would have had a scopophilic field day.

Pfeiffer doesn’t just work with clay, but also with canvas, which she paints with grand expressionistic gestures, spread out on the floor, before hanging the resulting scene as a backdrop for an installation, which, itself, then becomes a black and white photograph. There are four of these on display, each depicting an equally uncanny interior, none of which actually exists. That said, the toppling liquid-filled dog, which occurs first in Stages (Vessel Tilting) (2013), does also feature in the exhibition, as a vision made real: the possible made actual, a dream become reality (Animal Vessel (Figure of the Unthinkable), 2013). But distorted as ever, the ceramic creature must sit upon two supports, as his oversized genitals hang down uncomfortably in between.

Whilst, in this instance, an image has become an object, a ceramic slab standing upon an easel nearby renders a 3D character from a mug (sadly not on display) almost as flat as a painting (Body Relief (Figure of the Thinkable), 2013). Here, the woman, whose breasts on the mug are, so I am told, doomed to tip up every time the drinker takes a sip, has been relieved of her physical discomfort and elevated in status from a mildly distasteful comic item to a virtually 2D work of art – the reverse fate of the pitifully encumbered dog.

This sense of humour permeates much of Pfeiffer’s work, and, again, one can but imagine the father of psychoanalysis’s joy at many of the innuendos and interpretations offered up. Indeed, to return to the wall of broken dreams, with its visions of the past, present and future, and the eyes which gaze eternally upon it, trying to make something out of the blank canvas it offers – what more is this exhibition than an invitation to the visitor to unleash his or her own imagination as to how the story might unfold?


Building the Labyrinth

Iris Study: blue

Stages (Vessel Tilting) 

Animal Vessel (Figure of the Unthinkable)

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Review of Loudest Whispers 2013 at the Conference Centre, St Pancras Hospital

Loudest Whispers 2013
The Conference Centre, St Pancras Hospital
4 February – 28 March 2013

“My singular medical and psychological history has informed who and what I am. […] It is not all of me though it has left a lasting impression on my life and informs the person I am today.”

Victoria Canton was born intersex, with the chromosomes XXY. Raised as a male, she was finally recognised as female in July 2009, aged 39. Now a professional artist, her large scale, brightly coloured, abstracted paintings show figures reclining on sofas in the typical poses of female nudes throughout art history. Alongside their flowing locks and ample breasts, however, they also have penises – not exactly something you would expect of Manet’s ‘Olympia’, no matter how much of a challenge to artistic circles the painter wished to pose at the time!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Review of This ‘Me’ of Mine at APT Gallery, Deptford

This ‘Me’ of Mine
curated by Jane Boyer
APT Gallery, Deptford
14 – 31 March 2013

Strange Cargo | Georges House Gallery, Folkestone
12 April – 7 May 2013

Sevenoaks Kaleidoscope Gallery, Sevenoaks
10 May – 29 June 2013

Art School Gallery, Ipswich Museum, Ipswich
Dates t.b.a.

The premise for this group exhibition, bringing together 15 artists, touring four venues, and curated by Jane Boyer, was to look at the notion of “the self in relation to context,” working on the assumption that none of us can exist external to some context or other, be it our social network, our location, our memories and past experiences, our current circumstances, or our perceptions. The works on display span various media, including a couple of digital video and sound pieces (Cathy Lomax’s Glass Menagerie, Pt 1 & Pt 2, 2011, and David Riley’s Bar EP Blues (kinetatic), 2011) and a printed scroll of coded and transcribed Twitter handles (David Riley, Twitter User Names: coded and transcribed, 2013), alongside some more nostalgic collections of objects which you might associate with your past as a child, playing with pinwheels on the beach (Hayley Harrison, Her, 2011), or visiting your grandmother and looking at her thimbles, glass animals, and coronation memorabilia (Kate Murdoch, It’s The Little Things, 2011).

There is a lot of grey in this exhibition, and no, that’s not just me bringing in the unseasonal chill from a sleeting Deptford creekside. In David Minton’s Peripheral Vision (2010), for example, which places a falling bird and its shadow on an otherwise empty canvas, the shadow of the non-contextual space hangs heavier than that of the unidentified bird. Similarly, the school class of Darren Nixon’s Untitled 30-5-11 (2011) scarcely manages to emerge from the lurking and almost sinisterly enclosing grey-black behind. The sense of transient youth and the hopeless promise of becoming, the acquisition of identity, and the incidental creation of memory, is something we can all relate to if we recall this annual “rite of passage” of posing awkwardly and being captured for posterity, usually in a most unflattering gurn.

Shadow plays a role in Shireen Qureshi’s Untitled Nude (2011) too, where the yellow torso fights to escape its oppressive black ground, perhaps struggling to form an impossible new self, free of context and binds?

Aly Helyer’s two pieces, Strange Fruit and Happy Family with Sheep (both 2007), look, to me, almost more like Rorschach tests, questioning the viewer’s perception and probing her psychological identity, whilst Sarah Hervey’s sketchy Purple Nude (2011) attempts to capture and pin this down, uncomfortably framing it in much the same way as Francis Bacon does his Screaming Popes.

For me, the most thought-provoking work by far is Anthony Boswell’s Time Box (2010), a small open box, with a mirror as its floor, and a clock in its ceiling/lid, ticking audibly, and reflecting deep down into the plinth below. The grisaille scene on the back wall provides a strangely disconcerting stage set, and the inverted grey chair reflects its upright counterpart, causing us to question which version is more accurate a representation of reality – the physical construction or its shadow; the present actuality or its mirrored memory; the way we see ourselves, or the reflection beheld by others?

Not all of the works in this exhibition are brilliant, and some rely more on concept than execution to pull them through, but, as a whole, the show hangs together well and indeed raises questions about the self, identity, and ways of seeing and of being seen. The bright spotlights, at least in venue number one, seem to place the visitor herself on the stage, and, as Boyer accurately asserts, this exhibition is very much a snapshot of humanity with ourselves in centre-frame.

For further information, essays, interviews with the artists, and links, please visit the exhibition’s blog at:


Kate Murdoch
It’s The Little Things 
50 x 60 cm

Darren Nixon
Untitled 30-5-11 
oil on canvas  
160 x 105 cm

Shireen Qureshi
Untitled Nude 
oil and charcoal on canvas  
76 x 50.5 cm

Aly Helyer
Happy Family with Sheep  
watercolour and ink on paper  
31 x 23 cm

Anthony Boswell
Time Box 
mixed media construction  
20.3 x 27.9 x 20.3 cm

Friday, 22 March 2013

Review of Candida Höfer: A Return to Italy at Ben Brown Fine Arts

Candida Höfer: A Return to Italy
Ben Brown Fine Arts
12 February – 12 April 2013

Those of us lucky enough to live or work amongst architectural splendour all too often become blind to it; it becomes part of our daily backdrop. This is what struck photographer Candida Höfer (born 1944) about the Northern Italians when, after years of documenting interiors of beauty in the Central and Southern regions, she moved north a couple of years ago. Her current exhibition at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Mayfair showcases 13 new and previously unseen photographs documenting the region’s architectural treasures: the interiors of palaces, opera houses, libraries and theatres.

To read the rest of this review, please go to:

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Review of Movement and Gravity: Bacon and Rodin in Dialogue at Ordovas

Movement and Gravity: Bacon and Rodin in Dialogue
8 February – 6 April 2013

Ordovas, located on Savile Row, just opposite the somewhat brassier Hauser and Wirth, might be listed up there amongst my favourite galleries. Its small but delightful exhibitions are always meticulously researched and put forward fascinating new theses, each showing the influence of an old master painter or sculptor on a modern or contemporary artist. Its current offering does not disappoint, juxtaposing three bronze casts by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) with three paintings by Francis Bacon (1909-1992).

Rodin, whom critic and curator Catherine Lampert has described as “a modeler and an interpreter of the afflictions of modern society,”[1] and of whose sculptures the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said: “Never was the human body so bent by its own soul,”[2] sought to infuse his contorted yet beautiful works with the new psychology of fin de siècle France. “The sculpture of antiquity sought the logic of the human body. I seek its psychology,” he stated.[3] In a similar way, Bacon has been described by the novelist Anita Brookner as the “post-Freudian painter of trauma,” and said of himself: “I would like, in my arbitrary way, to bring one nearer to the actual human being.” 

The painter’s high esteem for his predecessor was well known, and, upon moving to St. Ives in 1959, Bacon was overheard in conversation with fellow artist, Brian Wall, asking what it was he did. When Wall politely replied that he was a sculptor, Bacon’s sharp-tongued retort was: “How interesting, actually there are only three: Michelangelo, Rodin and Brancusi.”[4]

It was during his period in Cornwall that Bacon produced a series of five paintings of lying, reclining and sleeping figures, four painted in 1959 and one in 1961, each depicting an inverted nude, lying on a couch, with one leg raised and the other bent at the knee, the right arm outstretched. One of these, Lying Figure (1959), is on show here, and can be admired for its dynamic portrayal of movement – through vigorous brushstrokes and blurred features – typical of Bacon’s style. More fascinating, thanks to their being brought together by the curators of this show, however, is the direct comparison of Bacon’s painting with what might be described as Rodin’s most overtly erotic sculpture, condensed down to just its sex, Iris, messagère des dieux (1890-91). Further juxtaposed here beside a contemporaneous cast, Iris, étude avec tête (1890-91), perhaps an earlier version, before the genital region had become the focus, and before the body had been decapitated, the similarity between the two artists’ models’ poses is undeniable: Lying figure is Iris inverted.

There is evidence too, that Bacon, who was notoriously reluctant to share his sources, did in fact look to Rodin’s work when painting these lying figures. He left margin notes in copies of V.J. Stanek’s Introducing Monkeys, ca. 1957, reminding himself to “use figure volante of Rodin on sofa arms raised” and “Figure as Rodin figure on sofa in centre of room with arms raised.”[5] His friend, Eddy Batache, suggests, however, that Bacon was confusing this other work by Rodin, Figure volante, with Iris, messagère des dieux, which he was known to admire, and which would fit the bill much more aptly.[6]

The third cast by Rodin on display in the exhibition is Iris, grosse tête (1890), indeed a magnificent and enormous hulk, with its nose approximately half the size of my hand. It is imperfect but beautiful, its mouth slightly misshapen, a sharp line of cheekbone, a heavy brow conveying a real sense of weight, and visible tool marks, akin, in vigour, to Bacon’s brushstrokes. This piece is contrasted with the painter’s disturbingly unflattering Miss Muriel Belcher (1959), a “portrait”, if it earns that accolade, where his rough brushstrokes predominate, and the side on head fills only the bottom half of the green canvas – an intriguing use of space.

The final work on show is Bacon’s Three Studies from the Human Body (1967), seen here for the first time in London. Extolled in the gallery material for being the only Bacon painting which can be said to show anything approximating the weightlessness of Rodin’s seemingly suspended bodies, Bacon himself reportedly told the writer Hugh Davies that “these were almost sketches of three figures that happened to occur on the same canvas.”[7] As such, I don’t think much weight can be placed on the composition itself, but each figure taken alone certainly has its own merit, and it is a neat feature that the gallery has also found and displayed the photograph of a young French boy “joue au singe”, hanging from a branch in the Ivory Coast, from a 1959 copy of Paris Match, again an almost exact match to the topmost figure in Bacon’s painting, even to the extent that his head is slightly blurred from movement, which may explain why Bacon’s rendering is somewhat “squashed”.

The one dressed figure on the canvas, itself painted a deep and absorbing black, has his left leg in plaster and mounted upon a splint – presumably something taken directly from one of the many medical text books which littered Bacon’s studio as source material. A keen student of pathologies, this might be added as another commonality shared with the turn of the century sculptor, whose ties with the intellectual circle of the time would have afforded him exposure to the developing medical discourse on hysteria, which certainly informed a large number of his sculpted poses.

Overall, the exhibition captures both artists’ experimentation with movement, pathology, and psychology, or, rather, the revelation of the psyche, and the portrait of the soul, as opposed to the external. Where Bacon has borrowed directly from Rodin, he has rendered the pieces, quite reverentially, in his own unique way, with brushstrokes and vivid colours in place of tool marks and breathtaking sexual audacities. “Art can only emerge from inner truth,” said Rodin. “May all your forms and colours express feelings.”[8] And this utterance might just as well apply to Bacon’s works as to his own.

Performances of a special commission by choreographer Joe Moran, responding to the works in the exhibition, will take place in the gallery from 5pm on Thursday 13 March 2013.

[1] Catherine Lampert, Rodin. Sculpture and Drawings, London: Yale University Press on behalf of The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1986:43
[2] Display text accompanying sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
[3] Rodin quoted in V. Frisch & J.T. Shipley, Auguste Rodin, New York: Stokes, 1939:246
[4] Martin Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, London, 2005: 142
[5] Matthew Gale, Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, London, 1999:78, cited in Martin Harrison, “Movement and Gravity: Bacon and Rodin in Dialogue”, exh. cat., 2013:11
[6] Martin Harrison, “Movement and Gravity: Bacon and Rodin in Dialogue”, exh. cat., 2013:11
[7] Hugh M. Davies, “Interviewing Bacon, 1973,” in Martin Harrison (ed.), Francis Bacon: New Studies, Göttingen, 2009:108, cited in Martin Harrison, “Movement and Gravity: Bacon and Rodin in Dialogue”, exh. cat., 2013:32, my emphasis
[8] Rodin quoted in Beaux Arts Éditions, Rodin, Flesh and Marble, Musée Rodin, Paris: Beaux Arts Éditions, 2012:34


Auguste Rodin
Iris, étude avec tête
conceived circa 1891
photographed by Mike Bruce

Francis Bacon
Lying Figure
© The Estate of Francis Bacon
All rights reserved. DACS 2013

Auguste Rodin
Iris, messagère des dieux
conceived circa 1890-91
photographed by Mike Bruce

Auguste Rodin
Iris, grosse tête
conceived circa 1890
photographed by Mike Bruce

Francis Bacon
Miss Muriel Belcher
© The Estate of Francis Bacon
All rights reserved. DACS 2013

Francis Bacon
Three Studies from the Human Body
© The Estate of Francis Bacon
All rights reserved. DACS 2013

Video Review of Lichtenstein: A Retrospective at Tate Modern, London

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

Tate Modern, London
21 February – 27 May 2013

Coming on to the art scene at the height of Abstract Expressionism, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was to introduce yet another curve in the road into the history of art in the 20th century.

Readily admitting that “brushstrokes in painting convey a sense of grand gesture,” the artist, renowned for his works based on comic strips, advertising imagery, and hand-painted Benday dots, went on to correct that “in my hands, the brushstroke becomes the depiction of a grand gesture.”

The exhibition currently on show at Tate Modern, the first major Lichtenstein retrospective for 20 years, displaying over 125 of his paintings and sculptures, gives both space and credence to the study of his work as seeking to examine the meaning of artistic representation in an age of burgeoning mass reproduction.

To view the vodcast, please go to:

Monday, 11 March 2013

Review of Leon Chew: Asphalt Black at Payne Shurvell

Leon Chew: Asphalt Black
Payne Shurvell
22 February – 13 April 2013

“This is an exhibition constructed for photography,” explains artist Leon Chew (born 1975) of his current show, Asphalt Black. “It speaks a lot of photography, but also attempts to test the limits of the discipline.” Indeed, alongside a series of eight prints on purpose-cut black mirror sheets; a single, limited edition, authorised installation shot of the exhibition, Reproduction; and a further limited edition, Barstow Site 1, from which the whole show was born, the gallery is filled predominantly by two painted shapes spanning the floor, end wall, and ceiling, and a strip of fluorescent lighting along one wall, creating a “horizon” which reverberates around the room. These elements are, however, as Chew says, intrinsically related to the camera: as Reproduction shows, from a single point in the gallery, and through the viewfinder lens (the effect doesn’t work anywhere near as well with the naked eye), the curious looming shapes of Anamorphic (Black Sun) and Anamorphic (Trapezoid) appear, respectively, to form a perfect circle and a shaft of silvery light cutting across the room.

To read the rest of this review, please go to:

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Review of Carl Andre: Mass and Matter at Turner Contemporary, Margate

Carl Andre: Mass and Matter
Turner Contemporary, Margate
1 February – 6 May 2013

“My ambition as an artist is to be the ‘Turner of matter’. As Turner severed colour from depiction, so I attempt to sever matter from depiction.” As such, Carl Andre (born Quincy, Massachusetts, 1935) became a leading artist in the emergence of Minimalism in the United States in the mid-1960s, making sculptures out of ordinary industrial materials – wood, bricks, and metals – arranged on the floor in simple linear or grid-like patterns. Following a visit to Stonehenge at the age of 19, Andre has worked with the idea of “sculpture as place” rather than the more traditional concept of “sculpture as form”. Although his life has been overshadowed by controversy, not least for the murder charge for the death of his wife, Ana Mendieta, in 1985, fellow artist Richard Serra’s claim that “he changed the history of sculpture” is not an exaggeration, and the eight works in this exhibition, accompanied by examples of his poetry, seek to justify this claim.

I have to confess to visiting Turner Contemporary today, as a supporter of Mendieta, intent upon disliking Andre’s work. Having stood and admired the rawness of matter in David Chipperfield’s imposing North Gallery, however, magnificently curated and exhibited, so as to have all eight works together in a relatively small space, playing off one another, highlighting for the viewer just how accurate Andre was in his judgment that “copper is more profoundly different from aluminium than green is from red,” and with the central placing of Phalanx (1981), 14 western red cedar timbers, in two diverging rows of seven verticals, like an arrowhead, pointing at you as you enter the room, I was, despite my reluctance, won over, at least to his credibility as an artist.

Entering the gallery, which feels almost as if you are stepping on to a giant chessboard, you are indeed invited to tread upon 4x25 Altstadt Rectangle (1967), one of Andre’s “2D” sculptures, flat upon the ground, but there is a large print request to refrain from touching any of the other works, since the materials are easily marked by the oils in human skin. Who would think this of wood? Or metal? Such everyday, overlooked materials? But here, we are invited to reappraise them, to see them afresh, as matter in their own right, each element the equivalent to Andre of each different colour in an artist’s palette to a painter.

“Ideas no… My work has no more idea than a tree, or a rock, or a mountain or an ocean.” This is Andre’s own frank statement, and perhaps chimes with what a lot of critics are wont to complain. But actually, his banishment of depiction and illusion, and his affinity with the Minimalist ideals, do not equate on any level with simplification or banality. In fact, one of the most complex and cerebrally challenging of his works, not on display here, is his notorious Equivalents I-VIII, each a different permutation of 120 bricks laid out on the floor. Not only do these works invite the mathematical brain to analyse and explore which work uses which factors, but also the title of the series makes reference to Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic series, from the 1920s, of clouds in the sky – an early study in abstraction and minimalism if ever there was one.

Another work where the title tells us more than we might otherwise glean from simply looking, is Well (1964, remade 1970), a 28 unit stack of wood, hollow on the inside. Since it towers above the average human in height, this fact of its hollow nature would not be know if it were not told through linguistic reference to a known entity. Such playing with language is also a feature of Andre’s poems, of which a number are on display here, from his grand oeuvre numbering nearly 2000. It is a little known fact that Andre initially went to New York wishing to become a poet, but, when his sculptures began to earn him his income, his writing took second place. Nonetheless, his poems might be seen to echo his material works in various ways: they are either stacked, listed, or laid out in fields, with a flatness and modularity to them, divorcing the words and phrases from their grammar and syntax. Ranging in subject from love, through religion, to political responsibility, and American, Western, and personal histories, the words, each typed with one sole index finger, are vectors, which virtually fly off the page.[1]

This exhibition might be billed by some as a taster for the larger retrospective which is due next year in New York State, but I am not sure that any display could outdo this one, where the call to focus on the minute details of each elemental material, and to see the contrasts between one and another, has been so successfully brought to the fore. In the light of this, the stacks of wood and chequer boards of metal squares, seem every bit as beautiful as a skillfully carved Renaissance nude. Go and see this exhibition with an open mind, and remember, it is the art you are there to judge, not the artist.

[1] Grant Pooke in conversation with Alistair Rider and Gavin Delahunty, at Turner Contemporary, 6 March 2013.


Timber Piece
Museum Ludwig 
Courtesy of Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

Weathering Piece 
© stichting kröller-müller museum

© Carl Andre
DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2012