Thursday, 20 June 2013

Review of Nicolai Howalt: Light Break at Edel Assanti

Nicolai Howalt: Light Break
Edel Assanti
23 May – 22 June 2013

“I see,” we say so often, meaning “I understand.” And, indeed, seeing is not just believing, but also our best means of comprehending. Light, which makes seeing possible, also makes life possible. The sun is the great creator. And not only does it create and sustain, but, as the late 19th century Danish Nobel laureate Dr Niels Finsen discovered, it can also heal. With his invention of the Finsen Lamp, he was able to direct the sun’s ultraviolet rays, invisible to the human eye, through a series of crystal prisms, directly on to his patients’ skin, and thus affect a cure for lupus. A recently uncovered archive in Copenhagen contains early documentary photographs of these patients, alongside medical artefacts, and moulages, or wax “life masks,” detailing their before and after states. This groundbreaking medical development might not have been possible, had it not been for the simultaneous advances in photography, exploring and exploiting the properties of light.

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

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Review of Cass School of Art BA Summer Exhibition

Cass School of Art BA Summer Exhibition
Central House, 59-63 Whitechapel High Street
14 - 23 June 2013

I have to confess that BA and MA shows are not usually top of my list of must-sees when I have a busy schedule and am trying to narrow down exhibitions not to be missed. Admittedly, if you’re lucky, you might just spot the next big thing before he or she makes it on to the gallery scene, but, equally, in the process, you are usually forced to wade through myriad shameless – and embarrassingly inferior – copycatting of Tracey Emin, David Shrigley, Gillian Wearing, and so on, all of which wears thin after very little time at all.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find myself wandering around the third floor of the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design this morning, not only enjoying nearly all of what was on display, but also finding it to be of a standard at least as good and innovative as that which I had just been to see across the road in the Whitechapel Gallery.

As part of London Metropolitan University, which has received its (un)fair share of criticism over the past year, being branded “Britain’s worst university” by Vice magazine, and plummeting in the league tables, many students at Cass admit to often feeling ashamed to tell people where exactly they study. However, as a largely independent entity, the Faculty of Art, Architecture, and Design oughtn’t, perhaps, be tarnished by this same brush. This year’s BA class are the first to come through a new system of ateliers, whereby second and third year undergraduates get to choose a studio to be part of, and work together, learning from each other’s collective experiences. So, for example, there are options such as Crafting an Artistic Self, No Protest without Fantasy, Performing Politics, and Things, Objects and Non-Objects.

A student who chose the latter option, Karen Turner, spoke to me of how it has changed her outlook on materials. Looking back over her time at Cass, and to what she was doing, in her real life job as a window dresser, beforehand, Turner admits that whilst not much has changed in her methods, her ways of thinking have certainly enlarged. For her exhibition piece, she has converted memories into materials, using family photographs to build a twisting tower, and old cassette ribbons to suspend mirrors in a labyrinth of swinging light reflectors, beautifully hung in a corner overlooking Rachel Whiteread’s Whitechapel frieze and Rodney Graham’s weathervane.

Another innovation in the school has been the moving in of the architecture students to share the Whitechapel High Street building, bringing about an interesting cross-fertilisation of views on space and its use. This has perhaps influenced the number of installation works in this year’s show, many with interactive instructions to the viewer, and my favourite being Vika Verb’s wonderfully evocative cinema, with real velvet clad seats behind a swishing curtain, a small screen showing her self-made “trailers” and “main feature”, and even a popcorn machine. A few steps further, and you reach Iona Roisin’s chilling but engaging narrative film, with the voice of a girl telling the tale of a night out with friends, on which she was raped by a man in a club. To accompany this work, Roisin has also produced a book of “desire notes”: pithy, dirty, and sometimes erotic statements, à la Jenny Holzer, a few of which feature on walls and ceilings across the gallery and stair wells too.

More traditional techniques are featured as well, from painting to photography, architecture and design upstairs on the fourth floor, and, on ground level, even musical instrument building.

The most significant change to the Cass system, however, has been that the final exhibition, for the first time this year, counts towards the students’ final grade. Some students, in fact, who were failed on their proposed input, have been banned from taking part.[1] This, Turner suggests, has been a great thing, both for the students themselves, and also for the quality of the show overall (and, as such, its reflection on the tutors). Offering the opportunity for students to learn something about curating and displaying their work, as well as giving a lesson in publicity and marketing (all vital things in the career of any aspiring artist today), the fact that the show counts for something has meant that students, on the whole, have really thrown themselves into it, putting in both graft and consideration, and coming up with a grand finale well deserving of praise. If this is anything to go by, I shall have to amend my judgment of schools’ shows, and start moving them back up my league table of summer exhibitions not to be missed.

[1] They will, however, be given the opportunity to put together their own show in a different faculty building at a later date. 


Maciej Blazejewski
I don't have any answers, do you?

Karen Turner
installation shot

Iona Roisin
Stand-up II
installation shot

Vika Verb
After New Condition
film still

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Review of Steele vs. Freeakpong: Works by Joseph Steele and Nicola Frimpong AKA Freeakpong at Arbeit Gallery

Steele vs. Freeakpong: Works by Joseph Steele and Nicola Frimpong AKA Freeakpong
Arbeit Gallery
4 – 23 June 2013

In 2012, Joseph Steele appeared on the BBC’s X-Factor for artists, Show me the Monet, departing somewhat ingloriously. Nicola Frimpong AKA Freeakpong saw him and his work, and emailed him, believing that they might have enough in common to work together. Two years later, and after several intense months of bouncing ideas back and forth and meeting up for heated discussions, similar to the one I was invited to witness today, and their collaborative exhibition, albeit made up of individual works, is on show at Arbeit Gallery, curated by Nimrod Vardi.

Walking into the gallery, the first thing you’re hit by – and it’s a pretty hard hit at that – is Steele’s bombastic centrepiece. Two plastic mannequins, James and Deborah, who have been victims of a “bomb blast”, and whose remains are displayed miscellaneously on a couple of plinths. Deborah, the “lucky one”, is still standing, but stripped of her clothes, with one hand detached and lying bloodied by her feet, the other blown far away (later to be discovered in the back room with the free drinks). James has fared worse and his scorched and bloodied remains lie strewn across his platform, melted and exposed, as if to the bone. The horror of these pieces is visceral and nauseating, and my instinct, were I not about to meet the artists by prior arrangement, would be to turn and run. 

Upon arrival, Steele himself is fairly cavalier about it all. “Originally I wanted a child as well, but the mannequin fell off the back of the lorry and broke,” he laughs, swinging his legs over the edge of James’ plinth to sit down. He began setting fire to things and using explosives straight out of university as a response to his boredom with painting, inspired along the way by Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad car wreck. For this piece, he was apparently aiming for a look similar to Phan Thi Kim Phuc’s shocking Napalm image, incorporating into it a comment on the continued use of sweatshops and the current trend towards artists becoming celebrities or brand names. Steele doesn’t move the detritus, once he has exploded it, since the element of chance in how it lands is part of the artwork, but, fortuitously, James’ Vivienne Westwood label survived the blast and is stuck fast to his scorched skin, as if it were, in fact, branded on.  

As part of the show, each artist has made a work dedicated to the other. Steele’s for Freeakpong is entitled Zed with the head of the Freeakpong and depicts a disaster movie apocalypse, with the female heroine, Zed, standing atop the rubble of a bombed out London, the Shard and other recognisable landmarks looming in the background, and a red sky being swept through by tidal waves made up of cars, a homage to Hokusai. Zed, Steele explains, is the lead character from a film he has been working on for a while now, called Thus, taken from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Set against the Occupy Movement, it quickly turns into a revenge movie, with destruction to rival Sodom and Gomorrah. By now, this comes as little surprise to me. Steele, however, maintains that despite all of the violence and harm, “this [his work] is salvation in contrast to Nicola’s suffering.”

So, what exactly does Freeakpong produce that is more destructive than Steele’s Armageddon? Unlike him, for whom scale and impact factor seem to rule, Freeakpong’s comfort zone is A4-sized paper, on which she outlines in biro and colours in with watercolour paint, producing childlike – or might one say childish? – drawings, full of disturbing and crude detail, offering taboo-breaking, completely un-PC visions of the bad in society, exaggerated beyond all decency. She churns these works out hard and fast, spending between two and four hours per piece, and proudly stating: “Art is just pouring out of my head right now.”

On first meeting, Freeakpong is taciturn, admitting to feeling herself to be “quite repressed” as a person, with her drawings offering her “a way to let things out.” However, as soon as Steele turns up, “fashionably late,” she comes to life, and, upon the mention of the film Caligula, a recommendation from their previous get together, almost hyperactive, as she bounces about enthralled at the recollections of its “epic orgies” and “gratuitous violence.” With inspirations such as this, as well as figures including Salvador Dalí and the Marquis de Sade, it is easy to see where some of her pervertedness comes from. Her pages are populated by characters wearing t-shirts covered with slogans such as “I hate black people,” “Britain is shit,” and “Jesus sucks cock.” Gay body builders, Ku Klux Klan hooded protesters, and butchers severing human body parts: nothing and no one is left untouched by this orgy of violence and hatred, not even the artist herself, since in one work, protestors demonstrate waving placards scrawled with the chant: “We hate Nicola Frimpong. Kill Nicola!”

Her piece dedicated to Steele depicts a massacre on Downing Street, renamed here as Steele Street, with liberal amounts of blood, shot policemen, and David Cameron holding a sign announcing “I’m a gay prime minister.” One moment Freeakpong says that she aspires to be “inventive and refreshing,” and the next, perhaps more fittingly: “Really I just like to push and push and push myself and do the most disgusting things I can as a challenge.”

The world she creates is, she announces excitedly, “a world that I would like to be in if I could.” Even Steele seems more than a little bemused by this. “But why would you want to create these worlds and bring more pain and atrocity into the world? Do you not think a happy society would be as much about the repression of emotions as about the expression of emotions?” To this, Freeakpong guffaws, retorting sarcastically: “A happy society?!” Clearly, in her mind, this is an oxymoron.

“I think I’m quite old-fashioned in the way I work,” Steele concludes. “It’s always very serious, whereas Nicola’s is much more throwaway. Nicola creates a world of terror, pain, and suffering, whereas I want to reflect.” Indeed, both artists clearly know their cultural references. But whilst both are disillusioned with society, both, through their art, are unwittingly adding to all that is bad about it. Although, I’m tempted to believe that in Steele’s case this might be less unwittingly so, since his works do truly seem to be deliberately ironic, at least trying to make some comment on it all. “As an artist, you’ve got an obligation to make something with real integrity,” he says. And if only through sheer bombast alone, his works are at least impressive.

The information sheet to accompany this exhibition warns that “negativity is inescapable and flows through every part of us into the deepest, darkest corners of ourselves, polluting our souls.” It certainly feels like that upon leaving the gallery. Steele’s joke that “the best thing about this show is the plinth” sadly quite accurately sums it all up.



Joseph Steele
MANNEQUINBLAST documentary photograph
digital print

Nicola Frimpong AKA Freeakpong
watercolour on paper

Nicola Frimpong AKA Freeakpong
watercolour on paper

Nicola Frimpong AKA Freeakpong
watercolour on paper

Friday, 14 June 2013

Video Review of Patrick Caulfield & Gary Hume at Tate Britain

Patrick Caulfield & Gary Hume
Tate Britain, Linbury Galleries
5 June – 1 September 2013

Two masters of British art, two mini retrospective exhibitions, but held together in Tate Britain’s Linbury Galleries, so that the visitor might compare the bold use of colour and shape by some of our native talent from across two generations.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Interview with Patrick Henry: director of LOOK/13

Interview with Patrick Henry: director of LOOK/13

This summer sees the second edition of Liverpool’s international photography biennial, LOOK/13, offering a full and varied programme of exhibitions and events across the city. Presenting work by artists both local and international, the festival combines archival exhibitions with contemporary solo and group shows, bringing to the fore resonances and clashes between photographers from across the generations.

Anna McNay spoke with the festival’s director, Patrick Henry, about the challenges and rewards of working on this edition of the biennial.

Anna McNay: Can you start by giving me a little bit of background about the festival? This is its second edition in Liverpool…

Patrick Henry: Yes. The festival did have a previous incarnation, not exactly as a festival, but as a season of events, organised by Redeye [the not-for-profit photography network] in Manchester in 2007. From there, it was picked up by a group of photographers involved with Redeye, who were bitten by the festival bug, and who hatched a plan to create a biennial festival in Liverpool. They came to me, as I was then the director of Open Eye [the North West’s only gallery dedicated to photography], and I was very enthusiastic and became very involved very quickly. By the time I left Open Eye last year, I was on the board of directors and quite caught up in our plans for this edition. I took on the freelance role of artistic director, and, due to unanticipated events, soon became overall director of the festival.

AMc: How involved were you with LOOK/11?

PH: I was on the board of directors, and I was involved as the director of Open Eye as well because we contributed an exhibition.

AMc: The theme of this year’s festival is “who do you think you are?” Who came up with this and how important a role has it played?

PH: I came up with it. Themes need to work on a number of levels: you need a strong, simple idea that gives all those involved a clear territory to inhabit. It needs to be broad enough so that everyone can do their own thing within it, but narrow enough to be something that’s worth talking about and that everybody understands. We’re aiming to engage with really broad audiences: specialists – whether they’re photographers, other visual artists, or people who are interested in photography from a more academic point of view – but also people who don’t have any specialist interest in photography and whose interest is sparked by the theme itself. I’m actually really happy with the way this theme has worked out. It’s about a conversation in your own head that you’re always going through and changing, but it’s also about how the world sees you, how you’re perceived. “Who do you think you are?” works on two levels: as an innocent, straight question, but also as a challenge, like “who do you think you are?”

Monday, 10 June 2013

Review of Chagall: Modern Master at Tate Liverpool

Chagall: Modern Master
Tate Liverpool
8 June – 6 October 2013

“When Marc Chagall arrived in Paris for the first time in May 1911, he was a wide-eyed, aspiring young art student, eager to establish himself in the capital of the Western art world. By the time he left, in the late spring of 1914, […] he was an accomplished and mature artist, producing some of the most memorable images of the early twentieth century.”[1]

Tate Liverpool’s current exhibition, the first major showing of Chagall’s works in the UK for 15 years, focuses primarily on this pivotal period of his career, as well as following him back to Russia in 1914, where his intended three month stay was extended to eight years due to the outbreak of the First World War. Having always loved Chagall (1887-1985), since he became the subject of my first artist case study when I was just 15, it is really a joy to see such a focused but rich selection of work from his time in Paris, where he experienced European modernism’s “golden age”, carefully curated so as to show just how much he was influenced by a number of movements and schools, including fauvism, cubism, orphism and neo-primitivism, whilst maintaining throughout his own persistent style, profuse with recurrent motifs from Jewish folklore, and his own recurring characters such as the dreaming poet, the goat, and the green-faced fiddler.

“Chagall believed that art’s primary function was to interpret the world through iconography and allegory.”[2] His liberal use of metaphor is what imbues his work with liveliness and idiosyncrasy, and, even as we see him absorb and incorporate elements from the movements around him, everything is filtered and adapted to suit and express his own internal language and dreams. An anti-intellectual, Chagall had no ties to the ideologies behind the movements in which he was caught up. “If I create from the heart, nearly everything works,” he wrote in his biography, My Life, “if from the head, almost nothing.” Evidence for this is abundant in this exhibition. For example, whilst colour certainly flooded into his work upon his arrival in Paris, as can be seen clearly in The Green Donkey (1911), one of his first paintings from France, as well as in the striking contrast between the two paintings by the title of Birth, a dull, muddy one from 1910, before leaving St Petersburg, and an altogether more cheerful, pink-hued one from 1911, upon arrival in Paris, Chagall himself is quick to point out that it is not just French artistic influence, but rather love, which selects his colours for him, leaving him only to apply them to the canvas.

Apart from the influence of the different movements with which he came into contact in Paris, Chagall also learnt from other sources during his time there. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the inclusion of a number of naïve and energetic, contortedly cubist, primitive and yet alluringly sexual gouaches, painted by Chagall when attending his first ever life drawing classes as part of the Salon Cubists. A response to real life models, these are very different from his usually densely populated, imaginatively created scenes, and quite a gem to behold.

After a room full of the joys of Paris, the exhibition takes us back, with Chagall, to his native Russia. Here he produced a series of smaller, muddier, more naturalistic works, echoing the poverty of the war-torn state of his hometown Vitebsk. One stunning brighter work from this period, however, is Jew in Red (1915), which is one of a number of works he produced purportedly assuaging his urge, in response to the many Jewish refugees from Lithuania passing through the town, to “keep them safe… by putting them all in my canvases.” There are also numerous happier pieces from these years celebrating his love for Bella, his long-term sweetheart, whom he married on 25 July 1915, and with whom he shared enduring romance and passion until her death from a viral infection in 1944.

Chagall had always been a fan of the circus and the theatre, and back in Russia, he had various theatre and stage-set design commissions, culminating, in 1920, in a month-long project to produce murals for the interior of the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow. Seven monumental wall panels are included in this exhibition: Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, Music, Dance, Drama, Literature, Love on the Stage, and The Wedding Feast. Replete with characters from the plays of popular contemporary writer, Sholem Aleichem, alongside Chagall’s own characters, including his ubiquitous floating lovers, goats, fiddlers, rooftops, ladders and cockerels, the theatre became nicknamed “Chagall’s box”, and the murals are described by Tate as a “manifesto for Chagall’s deliberately hybrid aesthetic” – a fitting tribute to the crowning works in a show which has walked us through the many influences playing their part in the creation of this very aesthetic.

The final room of the exhibition is tantalisingly designed to offer a glimpse of Chagall’s later works, with six bright and exuberant paintings from the 1950s and 60s when he was living in the South of France with his second wife, Vava. More like the typical Chagalls we know and love, these works overflow with his use of symbols and icons, and bear all the more meaning as a taster of how his trenchantly personal and distinctive style flourished, fully imbued with the features it had acquired during those earlier years. Anyone leaving this exhibition without a hunger for more of this inspirational vibrancy and joie de vivre can simply have no functioning appetite at all.

[1] Simonetta Fraquelli, “Logic of the Illogical: Chagall’s Paintings 1911-1914.” In Chagall: Modern Master, exh. cat., Tate Publishing, London: 2013. p.13
[2] Stephanie Straine, “From Russia: Memories in the City of Light.” In Chagall: Modern Master, exh. cat., Tate Publishing, London: 2013. p.65


Marc Chagall 

I and the Village


© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
Photo © SCALA, Florence

Marc Chagall 

Paris Through the Window

© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013 

Marc Chagall 

The Promenade

© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013