Gallery visit. Julie Mehretu, Serralves, Porto, Portugal

On holiday in Porto, I was delighted to find the contemporary art gallery Serralves had a major exhibition of work by Julie Mehretu whose work I enjoyed seeing as part of a study visit at Tate Modern last year.

I find her massive canvases intriguing with a combination of architectural-style drawing,  vigorous mark-making and controlled use of colour. These are layered with thinly applied acrylic paint creating a depth of impressions.

It is not obvious what all the marks mean to the artist. In Venice (fig. 1a & b) The architecture of Venice lends itself to the repetition of ornate structures especially windows which gives an impression of the overwhelming nature of being in the city.

Fig. 1a Venice (with figure for scale). Ink and acrylic
Fig. 1b. Venice (detail). Ink and acrylic.

In Plovers Wing (fig. 2a & b) The architectural drawing is there but more abstract and is combined with beautiful, mysterious, coloured shapes. Do the shapes describe the movement of the wing in the title?

Fig. 2a. Plovers Wing. Ink and acrylic.
Fig. 2b. Plovers Wing. (Detail). Ink and acrylic.

While researching online to find out more about the artist I was interested to read an article in The Guardian by Brian Dillon from 2009 which describes Mehretu’s use of studio assistants who transfer the drawings – which are abstracted from photographs – onto canvases. Looking at the canvases you marvel at the detail combined with the overall impact.

A canvas where mark-making comes to the fore is Mumbo Jumbo (Fig. 3a & b). Shoals of ink marks make their way across the colourful canvas. The architectural drawing is hinted at but is not as prominent as in other canvases.

Fig. 3a. Mumbo Jumbo. Ink and acrylic.
Fig. 3b. Mumbo Jumbo (detail). Ink and acrylic.

Mehretu’s drawing/paintings work from a distance and in detail.  They seem coherent and accomplished on every level.

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Alice Neel exhibition. Victoria Miro Gallery.

I have been interested in Alice Neel’s work since seeing a documentary on the artist on BBC iplayer. I was keen to see this exhibition featuring her work.

Neel successfully brings out aspects of the sitter’s personality. How does she do this? In many ways her paintings look quite naive with black lines delineating the subject’s outline, blocky tones, colourful clothes, distorted proportions and often sketchy backgrounds.

But the personality shines through.

 

The Ashmolean – permanent collection

After the Degas to Picasso study day I took the opportunity to look round the permanent collection. With only an hour to look round I couldn’t see all of the extensive collection. I enjoyed two rooms full of small oil sketches. I didn’t know this was a thing but there were beautiful sketches by artists like Constable, Leighton, Camuccini and many more. These were preparatory sketches for classical landscape painting so were free-er and more modern-looking than the finished pieces. Some were unfinished showing the process of building up a landscape from pencil or charcoal sketches to tone and colour. In this unfinished picture Camuccini sketched general lines of composition in black chalk concentrating on the middle distance rather than the foreground.

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Giovanni Battista Camuccini. Landscape with trees and roots.

Others focused on a single aspect such as a cloudscape by Constable.

John Constable. Study of Clouds. Oil on Paper

 

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Frederic Leighton. Gateway, Algiers. Oil on board.

I loved the composition of Frederic Leighton’s sketch ‘Gateway, Algiers’ featuring a glimpse of the sea through a white archway and feeling of heat created by the colours with hints of blue, pink, grey and cream and strong shadow. The line of the sea is on the golden section.

The modern art section of the Ashmolean is small and tucked away but featured some amazing pictures. Sadly, there was no photography allowed.

Wassily Kandinsky. Murnau-Staffelsee 1. 1908

Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau-Staffelosee 1. 1908. is a stunning landscape painting with vibrant colours depicting a late evening scene. What are those flashes of blue white  in what appears to be the foreground?

I also loved Howard Hodgkin’s “Like an open book” 1989 – 90. The thick, colourful paint makes the picture a physical presence which is reinforced by the painting over the frame. It is like a memory made solid & quite remarkable.  Sadly it isn’t featured on the Ashmolean’s website.

Neither is Jenny Saville’s amazing drawing “Study of arms II” 2015. Charcoal and pastel on tinted acrylic ground on watercolour paper. A beautiful figure study of Saville’s daughter showing the movement of her arms while sitting for a drawing.

To do: I have come to the conclusion that you can’t rely on a modern art gallery to put all their collection online! I will sketch as well as writing notes and am seriously considering taking coloured pencils to better represent pictures in my learning log.

Flesh. York Art Gallery

I found the exhibition Flesh challenging, especially pieces which looked at decomposition or what’s on the inside. The exhibition looked at how artists have portrayed bodies and necessarily, mortality. I found myself averting my eyes from

Fig. 1 Berlinde De Bruyckere, Romeu (mu deer), 2011. Photo by Anthony Chappel -Ross

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Romeu (mu deer), 2011. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross.

And

Fig. 2 Ron Mueck, Youth 2009, Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross

Ron Mueck, Youth, 2009, with Dr Jo Applin, Courtauld Institute of Art, Co-Curator of Flesh. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross.

And

Fig. 3. A Little Death, Sam Taylor Wood

There was a sense of unpleasant queasiness in the air – you didn’t know what horror you would be presented with next.

I was drawn to a small still life by Chardin.

Fig. 4. Still Life. The Kitchen Table. It is beautiful. The colours, composition and light are just perfect.

Chardin is doing something very different in his picture to Sam Taylor Wood in “A Little Death”. Her video challenges us to look on death and decomposition. In her own description of the video she describes it as “shockingly violent” and “frightful” which makes me feel better about not wanting to look. Is Chardin thinking about death? The eggs could refer to life and birth and the salmon to death – or is he just thinking about dinner?

I thought about why decay in particular is so difficult to look at. Does it provoke fear? It certainly provokes disgust which is a natural reaction to something which is related to disease and ill health. Should we overcome our disgust and look closely, or should we accept it and move on?

I have been thinking recently about artists whose work appeals to me and have come to the conclusion that they are often skilled at evoking a mood or atmosphere – not necessarily a happy mood – but something that pulls you into a different place. In this case, being pulled into a world of death and decomposition was never going to be a particularly happy experience. It did provoke a lot of thoughts about why we like art and what art we like and also thoughts about death and decay as a subject for art.

https://nationalgalleries.org

http://samtaylorjohnson.com/moving-image/art/a-little-death-2002

Exhibitions at the Bowes Museum: Shelf Life. The ornaments are talking to me. by Mark Clarke and still life pictures from the permanent collection.

In Shelf Life, contemporary artist Mark Clarke assembles ornaments and pictures bought from flea markets and charity shops into meditations on the life of his mother who died of Alzheimer’s. Inspired by her groups of ornaments and pictures, the shelves are arranged in various themes Dinnertime, Once upon a Time, Time To Kill, Showtime and Prime Time. I enjoyed looking at the objects and the way Mark Clarke assembled them. I like the selection and juxtaposition of images. It was also interesting to talk to the gallery attendant who said: “I don’t know if it’s art.” I find myself at a bit of a loss when faced with someone who is asking: “but is it art?”

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Once Upon A Time. Mark Clarke

I also took the opportunity to look at some classic still life painting in the museum’s permanent collection.

 

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Fruit and Flowers 1866. Henri Fantin Latour.

Henri Fantin Latour’s painting Fruit and Flowers is a perfect still life. The colours balance between the flowers and fruit, the tipped basket and spilled fruit add a dynamism. The table slopes slightly. The textures of the glossy vase, woven basket, fruit and flowers add interest while the actual painting is beautiful with a light touch capturing the fragility of the flowers and the weight of the fruit.

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Plums, melons, peaches. Jaques Linard 1642

I was also very taken by this much earlier still life by Jaques Linard. Plums, melons, peaches is a beautiful picture with glowing colours. It is interesting how the colour moves from cooler tones on the left to warmer ones on the right. it is a satisfying balance.

I think I’m attracted to the simplicity of these paintings in contrast to more elaborate still life and flower paintings I have seen.

As a side note, I must use capital letters when writing down artist’s names – I spend a lot of time searching for images using mis-spelled names which is quite annoying.

 

Gallery visit. Monica Bonvicini, Baltic Mill, Gateshead

I had some time to kill after my Study Visit in Gateshead so I went to The Baltic Mill to see what was on. Monica Bonvicini is an artist I had not come across before although she is a similar age to me.  The exhibition “her hand around the room” is a retrospective of the artist’s work.

I was struck by the clarity of the artist’s vision. Her repetitive use of some materials – leather belts and chains and themes of construction and sex creates a body of work with a theme of control and overtones of sadomasochism.

I enjoyed NeedleKnows (2012), 200 works on paper depicting pliers stitched in red yarn partly because, from a distance, you don’t know what they are – or what they’re made with. Are they going to be nice or nasty? You approach with some trepidation but it’s OK, they’re embroideries not blood – honestly, this exhibition plays with your mind.

In another piece you stare at a video of an open door with a bright light at the other side. Eventually the door slams shut and you are left with an after image of the light on your retina – the artist has drawn on your retina.

I subsequently read this review in the Guardian where reviewer Laura Cumming gives the show two stars and says: “The Baltic wants us to think in polite terms about architecture, gender and power. But this is a body blow of a show and there is nothing polite about Bonvicini’s enterprise.”

I absolutely agree the show was unsettling and physical but why is this a criticism? I love it when art breaks through the intellectual into the physical. One of the best installations I’ve seen was The Coral Reef by Mike Nelson which led you through seedy abandoned rooms putting you in a different and unsettling place for a short time. It’s a place where you have no idea what’s going on and Bonvicini has a similar effect.

 

Visit to MIMA – Winifred Nicholson

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art is such a fantastic gallery. It is very inclusive and runs lots of activities and projects in the local community. We dropped in for lunch in the cafe which is designed to be an artwork in itself. I didn’t realise Winifred Nicholson: Liberation of Colour was on – it was an engaging exhibition about an artist I didn’t really know. In her long artistic career she focused on arrangements of flowers and landscapes with some abstract work. Her touch was light and contemplative. There was no photography allowed in the exhibition but there are many images of her work online.

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I was drawn to this still life of cyclamen on a windowsill which is an early work by the artist. I like the use of light shining through paper which is wrapped around the pots and the use of subtle background colours to suggest a monumental landscape with minimal detail. The composition and location of the still life on a windowsill are very interesting and I like the way the shadows on the windowsill echo the mountain in the landscape behind the flowers. There is more information on this picture here

Nicholson wrote an article “Liberation of Colour” in the 1940s – I haven’t been able to find this online.

 

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Palm, oil on canvas, 1980

At the other end of her artistic life in 1980, Nicholson painted Palm. Again it was an arrangement on a windowsill with a hill in the background. Nicholson has used a prism to look at the arrangement so the picture features the scattered light made by the prism. The image is loose and elegaic.

A lot of the works in the exhibition are privately owned and there are no online images. I was interested in her use of composition and made some rough drawings in my notebook.

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