Art Chronicles: Bice Lazzari at the Estorick

As I mentioned in an earlier post, back in October, the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in north London, is one of my favourite galleries to visit. Located in a restored and expanded Grade II Georgian town house in Canonbury, it has six small galleries on three floors, a neat, well-stocked shop and an excellent little café that opens out onto a courtyard in the right seasons. And I can get there easily and reasonably safely in these Covid times on London Overground, just half a dozen or so stops, thus avoiding the Tube; or, should I choose to sign up for a lengthy tour of Finsbury Park and Holloway, by the number 4 bus.

The heart of the permanent collection is from the first half of the last century: de Chirico, Morandi, Modigliani and a host of Italian Futurists. The two ground floor spaces are currently given over to a fascinating exhibition devoted to the work of the Italian artist Bice Lazzari – Bice Lazzari Modernist Pioneer – following her development as she progressed through various modes of abstraction that finally took her, via the Movimento Arte Concreta and the influence of Piet Mondrian, towards a minimalist abstraction that calls to mind Agnes Martin – though, perhaps, with a stronger use of colour.

Bice Lazzari: Untitled, 1970. Graphite & Pastel on paper
Bice Lazzari: Acrylic No. 5, 1975. Acrylic on canvas

It’s interesting that the first piece on display here, Abstraction on a Line, No 2, from 1925, created with pencil and pastel on paper, seems, with hindsight, to be marking out, in perhaps a tentative manner, the direction Lazzari’s work will take several decades later.

Bice Lazzari: Abstraction on a Line, No. 2, 1925. Pencil & pastel on paper.

Before that could happen, there was a living to be earned … “when my father died in 1928 I had to face life on a practical level and so, rather than walking around with a painting under my arm, I took a loom and started making applied art (fabrics, scarves, bags, belts, carpets) in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom.”

Bice Lazzari: Handwoven Bag & Belt, 1929
Bice Lazzari: Cushion, Hand-sewn fabric, 1930

In addition to similar woven items, Lazzari worked with architects, making decorative panels and designing mosaics, often working closely with the Ernesto Lapadula studio in Rome; she designed jewellery and the decoration of the renovated Pizzeria Capri. She did what an artist has to do to make a living.

But now, perhaps, one more late piece to finish …

Bice Lazzari: White Sequence – Acrylic No. 4, 1975. Acrylic on canvas

Look, go if you can, if you think you might be interested; it’s on till April 24th. And there’s always the café ….

Best of 2021

FILMS

After Love : Aleem Khan
Copilot : Anne Zohra Berrached
Limbo : Ben Sharrock
Never Gonna Snow Again : Małgorzata Szumowska
Nomadland : Chloe Zhao
Petite Maman : Celine Sciamma
Power of the Dog : Jane Campion

BOOKS :

A Ghost in the Throat : Doireann Ni Ghriofa
Fidelity : Susan Glaspell (First published, 1915)
Jack : Marilynne Robinson
Lean. Fall. Stand. : Jon McGregor
That Old Country Music : Kevin Barry
The Night Always Comes : Willy Vlautin
The Night Watchman : Louise Erdrich
Real Estate : Deborah Levy
Scratched – A Memoir of Perfectionism : Elizabeth Tallent
The Vanishing Half : Brit Bennett

POETRY :

Magnetic Field – The Marsden Poems : Simon Armitage
Country Music : Will Burns
Learning to Sleep : John Burnside
New Hunger : Ella Duffy
If You Want Thunder : Ruth Valentine
The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster : Sarah Wimbush

ART :

Mohamed Bourouissa : Goldsmiths CCA
Helen FrankenthalerImagining Landscapes : Gagosian Grosvenor Hill
Helen FrankenthalerRadical Beauty : Dulwich Picture Gallery
Margaret Mellis Modernist Constructs : Towner Eastbourne
John Nash : The Landscape of Love & Solace : Towner Eastbourne
Ben NicholsonFrom the Studio : Pallant House
Wim WendersPhotographing Ground Zero : IWM
Breaking the MouldSculpture by Women since 1945 : Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham


Art Chronicles: Margaret Mellis & Melissa Gordon … & Janet Sobel.

Back down to Eastbourne yesterday to visit the Towner Gallery and get a good whiff of sea air. The weather was glorious, the ever-changing skies viewed from the train were breathtaking, and the gallery – some fifteen minutes walk from the station – was, from the exterior, its usual colourful, crazy self. In supposedly sedate Eastbourne of all places!

The artist whose work had brought us there was Margaret Mellis, whom we knew from her connections with St. Ives. It was there that she came under the influence of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo …

Ben had been saying to me, “Do a collage, do a collage.” so I started in July [1940] and became completely obsessed with them.

The influence of Gabo especially, is evident, I think, in this piece from 1942, which is one of the early works in the exhibition.

Margaret Mellis : Collage with Red Oval, 1942

The majority of the work on show consists of a series of painterly constructions made from the driftwood picked up near Mellis’ home on the Suffolk coast, to which she’d moved in 1950 with her second husband, the painter Francis Davison. Once settled there she seems to have moved away from collage and back to her original love, painting – large landscapes and smaller studies of flowers – and it was only after Davison’s death in 1984 that she began making her constructions, prizing the driftwood for its texture, its jagged edges, its lingering elements of colour.

Margaret Mellis: Green Heart, 2002
Margaret Mellis: In the Night, 1993

Melissa Gordon’s work is displayed on roughly painted walls or on wire mesh and sections of chain link fencing. The inner space of the gallery is divided by tall strips of metal, framework for something waiting to be built. The resulting experience is like walking round a version of Gordon’s studio, busy, throbbing with ideas – large scale collages rich in colour, many referencing overlooked or excluded women artists. Elements of art history re-examined from a feminist viewpoint.

Melissa Gordon –Liquid Gestures, gallery view
Melissa Gordon : Liquid Gestures – gallery view
Melissa Gordon : Liquid Gestures; gallery view

One of the artists that Gordon chooses to highlight is Janet Sobel, who was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen. Married just two years later, she raised a family of five children, and it wasn’t, it seems, until she was in her mid-forties that she began to paint, progressing from figurative work into abstraction. She seems to have met with some early acceptance and recognition, exhibiting in a group show, The Women, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of the Century Gallery in New York in 1945 and having a solo show there the following year. She was one of the first artists to apply paint to the canvas with what might be called a drip technique, achieved by pouring or blowing paint through a glass pipette – a technique that, perhaps unsurprisingly, drew the attention of Jackson Pollock and the eminence grise of post-45 American art criticism, Clement Greenberg.

And yet … and yet … she seems to have been largely forgotten, erased from the abstract expressionist landscape. Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan – those are the names we know, whose work is still frequently exhibited, and rightly so. But Sobel … it’s as if having admitted the bright few into the male-dominated club, enough was enough.*

Janet Sobel : Untitled, 1946-48
  • She is included, along with many others, greater and less-well known, in Women of Abstract Expressionism, edited by Joan Marter [Denver Art Museum & Yale University, 2016, from which I have taken some of the details above.

Art Chronicles: My Estorick Day Out

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is one of my favourite small galleries in London, easy to reach via public transport, rarely over-crowded, and with a very nice Italian café. https://www.estorickcollection.com

Their current show features all of the hundred-plus pieces in the collection – paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings – which was started by Eric & Salome Estorick in the period after WW2 and housed, as now, in a Georgian house off Canonbury Square in north London. Unsurprisingly heavy on Futurism, it features work by, amongst others perhaps less well-known, de Chirico, Modigliani and Morandi.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The overground train from Gospel Oak [80% masked, all socially distanced] got me to Highbury & Islington well before the gallery’s 11.00 a.m. opening and I remembered a rather nice coffee shop a short distance along Upper Street that I was introduced to by the writer John Williams – Benita Bakery. https://www.benitabakery.co.uk Rather nice being something of an understatement. The coffee was excellent as was the home-baked pain au raisin, the staff efficient and friendly, and I sat comfortably for twenty minutes or so, re-reading yet again Peter Temple’s excellent Truth.

Once the Estorick was open and I could begin to work my way through its galleries, I remembered that one of my greatest pleasures whenever I visit [yes, all right, apart from the café] is the interior of the building itself along with its furniture.

Of the work on display, if I had to choose one piece that was outstanding it would be Medardo Rosso’s 1895 sculpture, Woman with a Veil.

Made from melted wax over plaster, the woman’s face slowly emerges from beneath her veiled hat, as the note from MoMA, its usual home, suggests, “extending outwards to suggest the air and space around her” in the “dusty, bustling streets of nineteenth-century Paris.”

Also impressive were a series of small ‘still life’ sculptures, made by the artist Paul Coldwell during the recent lockdown, in dialogue with the etchings and drawings of Giorgio Morandi.

Beautiful work!

All in all, a really enjoyable visit, rounded off by lunch in the café, ‘home made’ tortellini followed by an truly excellent espresso – strong but not in the least degree bitter. Just the right accompaniment for a few more chapters of Peter Temple – a man who knew his coffee and so much else besides.

Art Chronicles: Folkestone Triennial 2021

Bob & Roberta Smith : Folkestone Is An Art School, 2017

What better way we thought to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of our being together, being a couple, than a trip to the sea; and what better location at this time of the year than a visit to the Folkestone Triennial – fresh sea air, a host of seagulls, a curve of pebbly beach; fine views along the coast, all the way to the white cliffs of Dover; fish and chips, and art in a variety of modes just about wherever you look.

The train from St. Pancras was twelve coaches long [typing that reminds me of an old song from skiffle group days] and far from busy; like most of the other passengers we were wearing masks. Sarah had printed out a map offering three routes and we chose The Milky Way, which begins with the Bob & Roberta Smith above and a large Gilbert & George wall piece outlining police powers of dispersal which I, somewhat stupidly, took to be the real thing. I mean, the powers might well be, but not expressed in this flamboyant form.

We were soon on the site of a dismantled gas works, dominated by Morag Myerscough’s Flock of Seagulls Bag of Stolen Chips, an arrangement of colourful panels in the shape of the old gasometer, each one bearing the words of local residents in response to questions about the site – what they remembered and how it might be developed.

Morag Myerscough : Flock of Seagulls Bag of Stolen Chips, 2021

Follow the black path down into the now derelict site and you come to a large screen showing a film of people elegantly and enthusiastically doing a line dance the excellent guide book informs me is called The Slosh. This is Jacqueline Donachie’s joyful and captivating Beautiful Sunday, celebrating not only the former Gasworks social club, but also “all the dance floors of Folkestone past and present.”

Jacqueline Donachie : Beautiful Sunday, 2021
Jacqueline Donachie : Beautiful Sunday, 2021

The third piece on this site is Jyll Bradley’s Green / Light (For M.R.), 2014, which uses green acrylic sheets and aluminium poles to merge the shape of the demolished gasometer with visual memories of the hop fields the artist remembers from her childhood. Fascinating to look at and walk through, impossible – for me, at least – to photograph adequately.

At this point, not having had a coffee hit since our flat whites from Joe & the Juice at St Pancras station, and feeling in need of a caffeine boost, we detoured to The Old High Street, before rejoining the route at the harbour, site of the former roll-on-roll-off ferry ramp, strong winds stirring the waves beneath where we were walking and sending them splashing high over the harbour edge.

We walked along the Harbour Arm as far as the Lighthouse, turning back along Marine Parade, an expanse of pebble beach to our left and beyond it the light reflecting back wonderfully off the sea.

Did we have the energy to proceed further and discover Rana Begum’s half-mile of coloured beach huts? Sad to say, we did not. Not just our feet, but various joints were beginning to ache and the 5.00pm train home seemed an inviting prospect. Briefly taking in some of Patrick Corillon’s relic boxes on the way, we arrived back at the station with time to spare and so enjoyed a little rest and recuperation in a beautifully laid out park nearby.

All in all, a smashing day – even if, somehow, we managed to miss out on the fish and chips. Might just have to sneak back, find those beach huts, after all it continues till early November.

Art Chronicles : Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler : Cape Orange, 1964 (detail)

When I visited the Helen Frankenthaler exhibition, Imagining Landscapes, at the Gagosian Grosvenor Hill recently, it was just a few days short of the anniversary of the death of the poet Lee Harwood, and he was very much on my mind. In particular, I remembered a conversation we had back in 2009, when I had not long begun a course in History of Art at Birkbeck College and was in the process of writing an essay about Frankenthaler. Lee recalled visiting her studio in the mid-60s with fellow poet and art critic John Ashbery and seeing Frankenthaler working on a canvas held on a low frame close to the ground, pouring paint directly onto the canvas from a number of cans that might have been old coffee tins.

As Eleanor Munro further described in Originals: American Women Artists

She tacked a seven-by-ten foot piece of unsized, unprimed cotton duck to the floor and, working with oil paint thinned nearly to the consistency of watercolour, poured and pushed it in its meanderings. By this method, she … gained what watercolorists have always had – freedom to make her gesture live on the canvas with stunning directness.

It seems that she controlled and shaped the flow of the paint to some degree, using squeegees or sponges, so that the resulting painting was a mixture of accident and design, resulting, as another New York poet and art critic, James Schuyler, put it, “chanced beauty”.

As Frankenthaler herself said, “I think most of my accidents are predetermined accidents.”

The exhibition at the Gagosian – beautifully and spaciously displayed – has thirteen works, ranging from the early 1950s to 1970s and illustrating the artist’s progression from paintings which included some figuration to a purer abstraction – but an abstraction which never quite leaves behind a suggestion of landscape.

Helen Frankenthaler : Red Travels, 1971
Helen Frankenthaler : Cape Orange, 1964 (detail)
Helen Frankenthaler : Sphinx, 1976
Helen Frankenthaler : Sphinx, 1976 (detail)

Art Chronicles: Walter Price

Following on from his 2020 residency, Walter Price’s exhibition at Camden Art Centre – Pearl Lines – is his first solo show in England. Combining work begun during that residency with newer pieces made during lockdown in New York, the paintings and works on paper mix reality with abstraction, thriving on a jaunty sense of shape and colour, and on the relationships between different elements of his canvas – collage, coloured pencil, oil paint and acrylic. Encouraging, while perhaps simultaneously discouraging, too straightforward a reading of their ‘meaning’

In a statement quoted in the File Note Essay by Rianna Jade Parker on sale at the gallery, Price says …

They (this was in context to white viewership but it can also be applied to a general audience) want it (the art) to be easier for them to understand. They want the final answer. They want it to be already figured out. “He did this because he went to the Navy” or “he did this because he’s from the South”. I’ve been dislocated from my own roots. I don’t owe them location or context. I want the work to offer wonder, yet avoid being condensed to the politics around my identity.

Arkwright #5 2020 Oil & acrylic on water colour paper
Move along your way as the days become a daze. 2020 Oil & acrylic on water colour paper
Move Along… (as above) Detail
Watchu think? Well he did put the picture in front of my face 2020 Acrylic, gesso, oil stick, coloured pencil, masking tape, photo collage, sharpie & graphite on tagboard
And our world shrank back to just a world 2020 (Detail) Acrylic, gesso & flashe on wood
White boy fake, 2020 Acrylic, photo collage & coloured pencil on paper

Pearl Lines continues at Camden Art Centre until 29th August.

Art Chronicles : Mohamed Bourouissa at Goldsmiths CCA

When I was a student at Goldsmiths in the early 60s, Laurie Grove Baths, almost adjacent to the college was, well, Laurie Grove Baths … destination for those families and individuals lacking home facilities and for regular crocodiles of children from nearby schools, looking forward to splashing around and maybe even learning to swim. The baths – more properly designated Swimming Baths, Slipper Baths and Laundries – were opened in 1898 as part of attempts to improve local health and sanitation. At roughly that time, some 1,000 families in the Deptford area were living in single rooms, with shared outside toilets, and disease was rife.

Come the early years of this century, the baths were no longer seen to fulfil a necessary function and were acquired by Goldsmiths with a view to turning them into a showcase for contemporary art. The architecture collective, Assemble, winners of the Turner Prize, were commissioned to redesign the buildings, while maintaining much of their original structure and protecting the Grade II listed water tanks and plant-works. The new gallery – Goldsmiths CCA – opened in 2018.

The current show, which my daughter Molly and I visited recently, features the work of the Algerian born artist, Mohamed Bourouissa, who uses photography, film and installation to examine and portray – to celebrate wherever possible – the lives and culture of communities who are living on what might be termed the edges of society, drawing attention to the ways in which they have been victimised by the twin forces of colonialism and capitalism.

Although, as I’ve said, Bourouissa was born in Algeria, he grew up in the banlieue of Paris, which, as the Exhibition Guide suggests, enables him to bring a specific view of the street and hip-hop culture to his work. As a counter-balance to the negative images that were shown in the media after the Paris riots in 2005, for Périphéries (2005-08) Bourouissa orchestrated a series of photographs showing a broader set of circumstances, some making reference to classical paintings such as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (right, below) with the flag being lowered rather than raised.

Particularly effective in a not dissimilar urban context is the sound installation in the Roden Courtyard Gallery, which has reinforced iron along one wall and is open to the air, the abstracted voices rising and falling before echoing off into the sky – all the more effective on the day we visited for the two buzzards – yes, buzzards in New Cross – that were circling overhead.

Bourouissa’s usual method of working, when he chooses to focus on a group or area of society with which he is unfamiliar, is to immerse himself within their culture by living with them for a period of time, as he did with the Australian Aboriginal Yuin people from the South Coast of New South Wales, resulting in the installation, Brutal Family Roots (2020). This was also the case for Bourouissa in the Strawberry Mansion area of North Philadelphia, where the black members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club challenge the predominant image of the white cowboy, as shown in the film, Horse Day (2015).

Whoa! There are four more pieces in the exhibition that I haven’t touched upon, including a beautifully made film, All-In (2012), which shows coins being engraved inside the Paris Mint to the accompaniment of the French hip-hop artist, Booba, singing of his efforts to extricate himself from life on the streets.

This is vibrant, challenging art that is varied in its means and consistent in its concerns. It’s a long time since I felt such an almost visceral excitement walking around an exhibition – I know, it’s a long while, a pair of small but tasty Rauschenberg shows aside, since I walked round any exhibitions – but this show at CCA makes it all too vividly clear why art can be exciting and important. It’s open until August 1st – see it if you can.

Molly and I were still buzzing as we stepped out onto the busy thoroughfare that is New Cross Road, and which doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal in almost sixty years. What we were in need of, the CCA café being closed, was somewhere calming to relax with good coffee and good grub and we found them just across the street at the rather wonderfully named Wakey Wakey. [Older readers – much older readers – will remember this as the opening cry that signalled the beginning of the Billy Cotton Band Show.] New Cross, it’s closer than you think.

Robert Rauschenberg and Me: My Big Day Out

You must be finding it especially frustrating, a friend of mine said recently, living in London surrounded by all those galleries you would normally visit and they’re closed. Well, no longer. Not all of them. By some curious sleight of hand, while Tate, the Royal Academy and other major public galleries remain locked down, smaller commercial galleries of the kind that populate Mayfair have been allowed to open. Masks. Hand sanitiser. No more than half a dozen visitors at any one time.

When I set out, the morning was sunny but cold; the wind biting enough to make me reconsider, not the whole enterprise, but the wisdom of leaving the house without a scarf. The bus, the trusty 88 from Parliament Hill to Clapham Common, was almost empty and would remain so for most of the journey; three, myself included, on the upper deck, some half a dozen below, all of us masked. Roadworks aside, progress was uninterrupted; even the usually busy crossroads where Oxford Street meets Regent Street failed to slow us down. A few moments more and I was ringing the bell, heading for the stairs and off out onto the pavement, turning west towards Mayfair.

It was a long time since I’d ventured into the heart of London for anything other than a hospital appointment and, even though I’ve now had both my jabs, an awareness that it’s possible for me, nevertheless, to transmit the virus to others, has made me cautious. But how often were there two exhibitions of Robert Rauschenberg’s work in London at the same time?

It was the Rauschenberg show at the Whitechapel Gallery back in 1964 that confronted me for the first time with art that was contemporary and exciting – and American – and which challenged so gloriously my conception of what art should be. No longer something statuesque upon a plinth or neatly in a frame, but a collage of images splattered and smeared with paint, an unmade bed hanging from the wall, the taxidermied head of an Angora goat!

The Bastian gallery – small, smart and cool – is on Davies Street, which – conveniently – runs along the western side of Berkeley Square; convenient, as I could sit on one of the many benches, eating my lunch – an egg & cress sandwich from the Pret a Manger opposite – before entering.

There are ten pieces on display on two floors [plus an eleventh by Cy Twombly], all coming from a time when Rauschenberg was living on the island of Captiva, off the coast of Florida. Three are assemblages of various metals – Gluts, as he called them – two lithographs, the others collages of images transferred by various means onto paper or polylaminate.

Robert Rauschenberg: Pimiento Late Summer Glut, 1987. Riveted metal parts
Robert Rauschenberg: Flue, 1980. Solvent transfer, acrylic & collage on paper.

Where Bastian is cool and minimal, allowing the work to be the immediate focus of attention, Thaddeus Ropac – at Ely House on Dover Street, near the Royal Academy – is opulent and grand, its black and white tiles, nevertheless, a near-perfect setting for the work on display. A selection of the artist’s photographs aside, this comes from two series of Rauschenberg’s metal paintings [silk-screened photographic images plus paint on aluminium]- the dark, noir tones of Night Shades and the lighter, reflective Phantoms.

Robert Rauschenberg: from Night Shades
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms (detail)

Oh, and one other thing … the first room at Ely House features three abstract paintings by the Canadian artist/writer Megan Rooney – luminous, rich in colour – think, maybe, Sam Francis merged with Helen Frankenthaler – which act as a nice contrast to what is to come. Rumour has it, Rooney will have a show of her own here later in the year …

Art in 2020

Ivon Hitchens : Space Through Colour
Djanogly Gallery, University of Nottingham

Ivon Hitchens : Red Centre, Oil on Canvas, 1972

9th St. Club : Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Mercedes Matter, Joan Mitchell
Gazelli Art House, Dover St., London

Grace Hartigan, Untitled, Watercolour & Paper Collage, 1965

Philip Guston : Locating the Image
Ashmolean, Oxford

We Will Walk : Art & Resistance in the American South
Turner Contemporary, Margate

Andy Warhol
Tate Modern

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