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Friday 18 February 2011

Sieving for Gold @ St Barnabas' Church, Dalston

Review by Liz Lau

The title of the show Ordinary Time is a reference to where the date of the exhibition falls on the liturgical calendar. Nevertheless it soon becomes noticeable whilst searching through this interventionist exhibition, nestled into alcoves, arches, on and around the fixtures and architecture of the space that there is nothing ordinary about this assortment of works.

A truly mixed media show ranging from gentle kinetic light sculptures by Jamie Lau, conceptual-crafting by E.A Byrne, a vaporous video projection from Aine O’Dwyer, found sculptural assemblages by Daniel Curtis to a cryptic sound installation by Joe Townend & Toby Owen in which a string quintet plays Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 where the sound of the music has then been removed, leaving only breathing and some incidental sounds. Most works were made especially for the exhibition with other pieces having had a life of their own prior to the show’s incarnation but seamlessly slot in as though divine intervention had guided them home.

Thirteen London-based artists have come together to explore and respond to the space through their chosen materiality lead by artist-curator Liza Cucco. Liza’s own work consists of three sound recordings that speak of childhood memories of inexplicable or supernatural events told through the cynical and rational mind of an adult, together with handmade small liquorish gun sweets peppered through the space acting as existential objects from one of these memories. St Barnabas Church in Dalston, London, is the setting for this exhibition with it’s high vaulted arched ceilings, utilitarian structural design yet with a distinctly mediaeval grandeur to boot.

The space is abundantly theatrical through the play of light and shadows constantly changing depending on the time of day, and the iconography, symbolism and hefty almost Cathedral like size all add to the sense that you’re on stage. It’s then natural to recoil and think about how the works would operate in the safety of a traditional white walled gallery space but suddenly this feels too reductive and bland and you’re instantly lured back into the realms of this theatrical troupe.

Studies from St. Barnabas by artist Alexandra Hughes are small post-card sized photographic montages acting as a neat counterbalance to the vastness of the space. The images are photographic responses to this interweave of shadow and light spilling through the windows, which have then been masked and collaged using shapes found in the church. Arranged in a grouping on a ledge where one of the shadows found in the work falls, creates a further layer of real-time shadow play.

Armed with the much appreciated exhibition floor plan, you go in search with the aim of discovery reliant on you to seek out many of the works. Next stop E.A Byrne’s work is a subtle intervention of bright handmade orange prayer cushions hung onto the back of the congregation chairs. 42 in total are rearranged alongside 42 existing cushions creating an overall effect of a checkerboard that responds to the repeating shapes and systemization of the architectural space. The quote Ad eundum quo nemo ante iit has been stitched by hand onto a selection of the orange cushions, the interpretation reads To boldly go where no man has gone before. Are we being lead to see the act of prayer as a way to go beyond our earthly existence with the church being the mothership and it’s congregation and priest being the crew and captain? Religion and Sci-fi crossover in this work to create a sense of possibility and exploration.

In a warp drive speed survey of this show we arrive at Dog Fur Diamonds by Petrina Ng. These are a series of hand-sized diamond shaped sculptures made from dog fur, arranged freely on top of the Baptismal in an alcove under an existing light take on a Raiders of the Lost Ark sensibility as though you have discovered rare treasure. The piece itself speaks of making memories eternal since the dog fur is from the artist’s pet dog who died years earlier and through the act of forging diamonds from this fur she allows the memory of her family pet to live on with her through adulthood.

Jamie Lau contributes two works to this show, the first titled I was Lost then I was Found is a reconfigured prayer kneeler with suspended flex and light bulb boring through the bible shelf, coal has been poured and place strategically through the kneeler offering us an unstirring hushed sense of hope yet radiates into the realm of anxiety and a deathly serenity. The second work a soft kinetic light piece titled Committee, this is a bigger and more functional looking installation, it’s large frame stands with purpose and with pride up on the main stage, taking on the resemblance of a mining rescue capsule and pulley. Another cable and light is suspended but this time motions softly up and down gently rocking from side to side. A mound of coal with a hole tunneled through allows the light to seemingly enter down into the floor and underworld of the church, as it rises back up and down again an ominous shadow breathes in and out. Both works although inspired by recent mining accidents in Chile and New Zealand offer no direct commentary or obvious narrative in relation to these events, although this is a nice cultural link the ambiguity of their origin frees the works to operate and act as redeemers in another context such as this show.

The enormity of the references in a building like this and the consequence it has on any work being showed here can be hard to move on from. It takes a brave set of artists to choose to work within such a highly loaded space. Many artists attempt to work within churches or reference religion in their work, unfortunately all too often in a far too literal way. What a relief then, the works in this show are not this. No shame or guilt here if you are a visiting atheist since the works themselves pull you in and welcome you to engage with them whether you’re devout or otherwise. Traditionally the church is about toeing the line yet these works are experimental and challenge the status quo, making for an enjoyable tension.

Many ideas are explored here from memory, the everlasting, other- worldliness, sci-fi and the ephemeral. We are also prompted through the forms on offer to work on many levels, conceptually, intuitively and interrogate things with full engagement incase we miss something, like sieving for gold.

Maybe religious art is forever on the decline but churches as art galleries is a good direction for contemporary art to inhabit and explore, churches offer a place for contemplation, peace and introspection after all. It is the wisdom of the artist as well as God that can now offer us pause for thought and reflection inside these commanding buildings.

Ordinary Time
Saint Barnabas Church, Dalston, Shacklewell Row, Hackney, E8 4EA
10th-16th February 2011
Holly Birtles / EA Byrne / Liza Cucco / Daniel Curtis / Jenny Evans / Alistair Gordon / Alexandra Hughes / Jamie Lau / Oliver HV Mezger / Petrina Ng / Áine O’Dwyer / Toby Owen / Holly Slingsby / Joe Townend

Alexandra Hughes (left)
Studies from St. Barnabas

Jamie Lau (right)

The Magik of Dirk Bell @ The Modern Institute in Glasgow

Review by Alistair Quietsch

Dirk Bell’s work is a diverse mix of masterly observed drawings, minimalist sculpture and an artistic play with technology. Upon entering the show there is a large mix of objects to piece together. Darkly toned paintings of rotten apples looking like organs juxtaposed against a seemingly rigid large steel grid pattern. Two skilfully drawn eyes avoid each others gaze in the far corner while a giant striplight star structure clicks and fizzes governing the centre of the space, humming off an irresistible omnipresent sleekness. It is this piece that truly adds the ambience to the show, its presence dominates the space and intrigues onlookers, with its immaculate black and white sheen of steel and glass.

In the space, Bell is playing with various themes, all core to the human condition: belief, myth, society, freedom and love. It is through these themes that the work’s ambiguity begins to shed away and a more connected body forms. On first impressions it can come across as a ragtag collection of pristine metal work and shabby found materials, of old dirty doors and lazy canvas draping all banded together in a white cube space. But look closer and suddenly there is a nude posing, elegantly drawn by erasing dirt from the shabby door. Two apples eaten away at the core hug one another in a yin-yang style pairing, wrinkly and somehow pleasingly real. It all begins to fall into place when the large metal grids, no longer some coldly executed minimalist throwback, suddenly appear to spell FREEDOM and another smaller cube spells LOVE like a clever take on the Robert Indiana sculptures.

You would think there is the risk of the work coming across as kitsch, especially with such hippie themes such as love and freedom but Bell’s clever balance of darkness and concept thankfully make the pieces more powerful than soppy.

However it is in the giant striplight sculpture, that sits atonally Om-ing, that the current of Bell’s efforts seem to have adeptly flown, which also securely breaks him away from any kind of bland posing. Stood on a slight stage a laptop sits seemingly playing through various images on a 3 Dimensional replica of the exhibition space. Running out from it are wires connecting it to a PA system, speakers, and a snare drum. From this drum thicker black wires feed the giant star in a Matrix style winding and eerie weaving of black and white tubes. The stuff of sci-fi fans dreams. Titled Merkaba, the piece is a complex comment on technology (even going as far as to say gamer culture), society and religion. Through the laptop the viewer is invited to enter the video game where the objective is to collect and gain “LOVE” and “FREEDOM” as they float around in the on screen 3 Dimensional replica. As you collect each keyword an Eastern monastery style chime follows and lights flicker within the star.

The intelligence behind the piece is not only in its laborious production but also in its play with concepts. It appears to be a sharp comment on some video games that play with the idea of society, The Sims and World of Warcraft to name a few, where the root objective is always to collect goals and therefore ascend to a higher level within the game. In terms of The Sims this is through making friends, keeping your character happy by letting them play, eat, sleep and interact with others, essentially mirrored in Bell’s collecting of LOVE and FREEDOM as if they were commodities that could be picked up at a shopping centre. Through this there is the parody that if you have collected enough LOVE and FREEDOM you will ascend to some other plane. In the game you are bumped around in the basic graphics until you finally begin to well up into the sky. To accentuate this the title of the piece, and the Jewish Star of David shape, points directly to this idea of ascension. In Kabbalah studies the Merkaba is the chariot of God and through the decoding of the Ezekiel passages the reader can learn the secrets of creation and eventually reach an ascended status. Through Dirk Bell’s play with technology he has adapted this myth into our current consumer culture and plays it off well, possibly mockingly, in his giant Star to Enlightenment.

Generally the work seems to be planted firmly in the esoteric myths of the Greeks, Jews and Christians: the stuff of Crowley books and Kabbalah, but each with an interesting contemporary reinvention. It is safe to say that Bell is a very Gothic artist (perhaps a trait of his Germanic birthplace) both in his Da Vinci level of rendering but also in his steady grasp of spiritual themes and overall dark motif. There is also the level of conceptual probing within the very broad themes of the show, with the CCA and Bell having even devoted the entire upper half of his show to allowing philosopher Marcus Steinwen to set up analytic diagrams breaking down complex webs of theory regarding art, societies, truth and being.

It could be a criticism that the work is grounded in the place of fantasy; of magic and spells, and some may be put off with the work that Bell creates around these themes, but I would say it is refreshing to see a show that is not just a sarcastic self-reference to the art world. It plays on the wide range of folklore and creativity that has gone into the cannon of human spirits and makes the world seem a bit more magical instead of just mechanical.

For more information on the forthcoming programme at The Modern Institute please visit www.themoderninstitute.com

Installation View, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow, 2011

Thursday 17 February 2011

Invocations of the Blank Page @ Spike Island

Review by Regina Papachlimitzou

The quietness and stillness you might generally associate with the blank page is challenged and eventually rejected in the artworks showcased in Spike Island’s Invocations of the Blank Page exhibition. Instead, the potential for meaning latent in a blank page is sharply brought to our attention, accompanied in turn by frustration, obsessive compulsion, the rawness of physical effort and even playfulness.

Anna Molska’s work Perspective takes centre stage: a looping clip shot in the midst of a peaceful snow-covered landscape, whiteness unfolding in all directions under a clear sky. The artist rises, and as she walks toward the vanishing point of the frame a number of ropes tied around her rise also. The artist’s figure becomes the moving centre of the converging lines that both make up and point towards a precarious perspective, at once suggesting and questioning the necessity of a single point from which perspective, and by extent meaning – stem. The agonising physical effort involved in the strife to create meaning on the blankness of the snowy page is accentuated throughout: the artist’s frantic pant, her heaving breath as she struggles to move forward, falls, tries to rise again, is continuously juxtaposed with the landscape stretching indifferently around her. A wisp of blonde hair and a furtive glimpse of bare hands, together with the constant soundtrack of gasping for air, firmly situate the artist in a physical plain, forever on the cusp of reaching something, forever drawn back. Breaking away from the blankness of the page and into meaning, and breaking away from a prescribed meaning and into the blankness that serves as the point of departure for creativity, are interchangeable, the film seems to suggest. The sudden and unforgiving sound of ropes snapping signals the breakdown of the narrative; and yet, the artist still struggles to move forward, coughs and falls. Over the deafening sound of rasping breath, the work plunges into darkness.

To the left of the screen is mounted Ignacio Uriarte’s Blocs: at once peaceful and manic, the undulating landscape of a pair of notepads greets you, their surface torn and mangled with admirable precision. The result is an uncomfortable testimony to the tedium of 9 to 5 office jobs: the fact that plain and ordinary office materials could be used to make unusual, resonating art seems to imply, by extension, that time spent in the office could also be used more creatively. However, at the same time Blocs acts as a hopeful reminder of the fact that art is rarely – if ever – born out of thin air, or created within the confines of an isolated creative sphere: rather, artistic expression is inextricably linked to everyday experience, tedious though that may, at times, be.

The exhibition comprises other works, including Gareth Long’s Work in Progress, a looping depiction of Daffy Duck apparently sentenced to suffer from writer’s block in perpetuity; Vlatka Horvat’s Pages (Repaired), a series of pages torn up and put together again, sometimes with order and precision and other times with the pathos of broken glass painfully reassembled; and Martin Creed’s Work No. 88: A Sheet of A4 Paper Crumpled into a Ball, which could serve as a synopsis of the preoccupation behind all the works: the tension between nothingness and meaning, and the struggle to achieve the transition from one to the next.

Invocations of the Blank Page revisits, in a manner at the same time playful and urgent, that staple and starting point of creativity: the blank page. In addition to the emphasis placed on the actual physical material necessary to produce art, the exhibition repeatedly puts forward the argument that a page can not only serve as a vehicle of artistic production but also, in and of itself, the final result. In a digital age, the urgency of the exhibition’s appeal to reconsider the importance of materiality in human experience and to revaluate its significance is particularly poignant. In the works, the page and some of its potential are in turn hidden, emerging, revealed, violently displayed; tossed away.

Invocations of the Blank Page continues until Sunday 10 April 2011, at Spike Island in Bristol.

Invocations of the Black Page installation Spike Island, works left to right:
Anna Molska, Perspective, 2008 Video: 1:31, colour, sound Courtesy the artist & Broadway 1602, New York
Ignacio Uriarte, Blocs, 2010 A4 paper, 32x21cm Courtesy the artist & Nogueras Blanchard, Barcelona
Vlatka Horvat, Pages (Repaired), 2009 Letter-size/A4 paper, artist tape, 8.75x11.75 inches each approximately Courtesy the artist
Martin Creed, Work No.88 ‘A sheet of A4 paper Crumpled into a Ball’, 1995 A4 paper, approximately 2in/5.1cm diameter Courtesy the artist & Hauser & Wirth, London

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Pragmatic Design: Pop Up Architecture

Review by Nathan Breeze

Last summer, when struggling to find a job in London I stumbled across an intriguing advert online seeking volunteers to help convert a derelict petrol station into a temporary cinema. Frustratingly I had prior engagements but I was to see the finished project, Cineroleum a few weeks later, enthusiastically covered in both the architectural and general press.

Cineroleum is part of a series of ‘Pop Up’ projects that have emerged in London recently; temporarily transforming various urban spaces in unconventional and unexpected ways. They have captured the public’s imagination by offering fleeting reinterpretations of familiar parts of the city that remain beyond when the building is dismantled.

Notably at a time where economic depression still looms, the cinema was constructed almost entirely of reclaimed or recycled materials. An elaborate sign sat above the petrol station canopy while a Tyvek curtain hung below enclosing reclaimed timber seats and a screen rescued from a skip outside the National Theatre.

For the lucky few who managed to get tickets, Cineroleum aimed to recreate the excitement and magic of cinema going. A particularly dramatic moment came at the end of each screening when the curtain rose revealing the audience to the surrounding city context and the odd bemused passer-by.

The project was made possible by a team of dedicated Part 1 (roughly half way through qualification) architecture students. Architecture is a very patient profession; an Architect is considered lucky to have built anything substantial by the age of 40, particularly in the public realm. So it’s understandable that the students jumped at the opportunity to escape the virtual world of CAD and volunteer to help realise the project.

One group of Part 1 Architecture students have taken it one step further by starting their own Architecture Practice.

Practice Architecture, whose playful name presumably comes from the desire to make architecture despite their experience, has twice converted a rooftop of a multi-storey car park in Peckham into Frank’s Café. Commissioned by the Hannah Barry Gallery to provide a social venue for its sculpture programme entitled Bold Tendencies, Frank’s Café received an amazing 30,000 visitors last summer.

Once again the project was completed with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers, who constructed the café in just 25 days using reclaimed timber for the structure and furniture and a bright red canvas roof.

Unfairly an article written about it received a typically cynical comment attributing their success to the fact that one of the Directors of Practice Architecture is the daughter of the acclaimed British Artist Antony Gormley. In spite of this I don’t think anything can be taken away from Practice Architecture for what they managed to achieve on a meagre budget of £5000. The project has an endearing quality about it; akin to the feeling you get when watching a charming low budget film. There is no gloss; instead a real and wonderful sense of the collaborative achievement, the process of construction seemingly as important as the finished building.

A ‘Pop Up’ project that strikes a similar chord of collaborative community architecture was The Jellyfish Theatre, temporarily constructed in October 2010 in a playground in Southwark. With a capacity of 120 it was the first fully functioning theatre made entirely of recycled or reclaimed materials. The project was supervised by German architect and conceptual artist Martin Kaltwasser who specialises in community led projects using found materials. A simple steel frame was clad in reused timber market palettes, plywood and MDF all donated by local residents and businesses.

The Jellyfish was commissioned by the Red Room Film and Theatre Company to host a series of plays exploring climate change in the context of the city. The temporary structure literally forms the backdrop with architecture and set design becoming one; ‘Total Theatre’ as described by the artistic director of Red Room.

Like the plays, the building itself is undeniably politically charged; a propositional critique of commercial top down developments. It is an inspiring example of what can be achieved by a community without a developer or a large professional team. Critically for architects, it points towards a great opportunity to reconnect with the future users of their buildings. Nowadays they are too often isolated in front of a screen from the reality of the lives their buildings will frame.

For more information on the projects discussed above please visit: The Cineroleum, Practice Architecture and The Jelly Fish Theatre.

Image used with kind permission:
Lettice Drake 2009

Monday 14 February 2011

An Unresolved Reminder of the Past: Thomas Houseago @ Modern Art Oxford

Review by Matt Swain

Thomas Houseago is a British contemporary visual artist based in Los Angeles, California. What Went Down is his first major solo exhibition in a UK public gallery. Houeseago’s monumental, figurative sculptures, which are spread across three galleries at Modern Art Oxford, subvert the expectation of sculptural form using lo-fi materials such as plaster, clay and ply-wood.

First impressions are significant and what immediately strikes you is that this is almost a re-imagining of statues, bold and direct, large in scale, grandiose and primitive. The large and intentionally clumsy forms can appear at times almost childlike with a mythical air of translucent fragility, echoed in the origins of Houseago’s work which references styles ranging from Cubism to Futurism.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is undoubtedly the crouching, 3 metres high creation, Baby, which was borne from a mixture of disaster and birth going on in the artist’s life at that time and which also symbolically represents the lifecycle of humans.

Body parts are linked together in implausible ways creating a fractious tension between dimensions and limbs, as with Crouching Figure. Raw edges and crude construction give the pieces a sense of urgency and edginess, conveying personality and movement. This is an imaginary battlefield between the artist and his creations. Disembodied heads serve as a bold statement of intent set against these sombre textures.

Other highlights include Biggest Spoon 1 (Outdoor) and a series of masks that intimately reflect Houseago’s artistic roots, emanating from popular culture amidst layers of other cultural and art historical references. There are clearly a myriad of meanings in Houseago’s work, which are undeniably part of their charm in challenging form and scale. Indeed, it is rare to find volume and mass on this scale which affords such a level of intimacy. Imposing and vulnerable, unresolved and almost unfinished, therein lies a transience which might not otherwise exist.

So what does the work achieve? The message seems to be that ultimately, everything emerges from a raw state and that by definition, anything can be considered transient regardless of size or shape. There is a brutal honesty in this “static movement”, a visual metamorphosis that unfolds before your eyes.

Retrospective? Certainly, but it is an altogether 21st century vision of Modernism that confronts you. By re-imagining and referencing history, Houseago has managed to create something entirely new, blending past, present and future to dramatic effect.

Thomas Houseago What Went Down continues at Modern Art Oxford until 20 February.

Thomas Houseago: What Went Down. Installation view at Modern Art Oxford. Photography by Marcus Leith

David Hockney: Bigger Trees Near Warter

Works by some of the most famous names in the world of art are coming to Yorkshire this year as part of a compelling programme of exhibitions and events. Art in Yorkshire- supported by Tate, will see works by iconic artists such as David Hockney, Henry Moore and Dame Barbara Hepworth featured in exhibitions taking place in 19 urban and rural galleries across the county. Not to mention The Hepworth Wakefield will be opening this May!

To launch this initiative, David Hockney’s Bigger Trees Near Warter or/ou Peinture Sur Le Motif Pour Le Nouvel Age Post-Photograpique 2007 is on display in York Art Gallery. Measuring 12m by 4.5m, and made up of 50 smaller canvasses of a landcape near the East Yorkshire village of Warter, the work is the largest painting David Hockney has ever created. Significantly, this is the first time the work has been shown outside of London which seems wholly appropriate considering the subject is the Yorkshire landscape, a view supported by Nick Serota, Director of the Tate.

Hockney’s painting was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibtion, before the artist presented it to the Tate. The painting is made up of fifty panels joined together to form a whole, with Hockney using a combination of traditional techniques and new technology to create the piece. Taking six weeks to complete, with Hockney painting each individual canvas en plein air the method of composition harks back to the work of the Impressionists.

Taking a scene just before the arrival of spring when the trees are coming into leaf, the work overwhelms the viewer with the monumental beauty of the landscape. In the shallow foreground space a copse of tall trees and some early daffodils stand on slightly raised ground. An imposing sycamore is the composition’s central focus. Another, denser copse, painted in pinkish tones, is visible in the background. A road to the extreme left and two building to the right of the composition offer signs of human habitation. The work is not only extensive, but intricate- depicting the stark pattern created by the tree’s overlapping branches, which are clearly delineated against the winter sky.

Whilst this piece is hugely ambitious by itself- its placement in the York Art Gallery also draws attention to the strength of Yorkshire’s art collections in their own right. At the official launch, the support for this initiative was clear and well-placed. This is a fantastic work, in a spectacular location.

Whilst the Hockney will certainly be the biggest work on display this year, there is plenty more to see if you're in the York area; Sphere of Accuracies: Zone of Truth opens on the 5 March at Bar Lane Studios is a group exhibition exploring art, science and neurality whilst Danielle O'Connor Akiyami at Bohemia Galleries blends her interest in Japanese brush painting with an impressionist style. Quilt Art, an international group of 20 textile artists, at the Quilt Museum and Art Gallery celebrates its 25th anniversary with an exhibition that demonstrates its diversity of inspiration, artistic and technical skills. Sticking with contemporary makers, The New School House Gallery presents a major solo exhibition of new work by award-winning ceramicist Louisa Taylor displayed alongside a selection of pieces from the Yorkshire Museum that inspired her. If all that art makes you hungry then what better to refresh the mind than Afternoon Tea at Bettys.

The show at York Art Gallery continues until June 12 2011 when it will then travel to the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull from June 25- September 18 and then at Cartwright Hall in Bradford from October 1 to December 18. For more information please visit www.yorkartgallery.org.uk

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