Art of the Year, 2018

Well, even if I haven’t got to see everything I would have liked, it’s been a good year, especially for encountering artists I hadn’t come across before, Rana Begum for one. Her work somehow combines facets of minimalism with various kinds of patterning, some of her pieces (many?) depending for their effect on a kind of optical illusion. You thought you knew what this was? Then look again. And again. Whereas her show at the Djanogly gallery in Nottingham gave a fuller sense of her overall practice, at Ketttle’s Yard in Cambridge she filled a chapel annex with baskets you were forced to bend your way under and around, and at Tate St. Ives, in addition to a selection of small paintings, she hung painted fishing nets from the walls and filled a table with a variety of white sculptures based on different shapes and sizes of fishing floats. Fascinating.

Camden Arts Centre has a knack of presenting interesting work by lesser known artists and this year’s exhibition of abstract work by Amy Sillman was no exception. Great use of colour in the larger abstract pieces, set off against cartoon-like and politically (small p) figuration. I nearly missed Heidi Bucher at the Parasol Unit, a medium-size gallery next to Victoria Miro off City Road and was so pleased that I didn’t. Not dissimilar in some ways from the working practices of Rachel Whiteread or Anthony Gormley, Bucher [she died in 1993] made latex casts of building interiors (doors, windows), objects and clothing, the resultant ‘skinnings’ hung from ceilings or displayed on walls. Beautiful and deeply, deeply unsettling.

Just about as unsettling as the huge paintings of faces – mostly faces, overflowing flesh and faces – in the brilliant exhibition of Jenny Saville’s work at the Scottish National Gallery. I’d never seen as much of her work in one place before and the effect was close to overwhelming. But brilliant.

Caroline Walker is an artist whose development I’ve been happy to follow for quite a while now [ever since those days when I could afford to buy it!] and the paintings that comprised Home, again at Kettle’ s Yard, are amongst her best, not least for the care and dignity she gives to her subjects, all of whom are/were female asylum seekers living in London.

Finally, mention of three near-perfectly curated [to use the word in its proper sense, for once] shows : Picasso 1932 at Tate Modern, Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and the Permanent Collection rehang at Tate St. Ives.

 

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Art Chronicles: Rana Begum & Mark Dion

I wouldn’t have known about the art installation by Mark Dion at St. Ives’ Porthmeor Studios, if my partner, Sarah, and I hadn’t fallen into conversation with the invigilator in the small gallery at Tate St.Ives currently housing work by Rana Begum under the title, A Conversation with Light and Form – and which in itself we’d only stumbled on by chance, moving between the rooms showing work from the Tate’s permanent collection and the current exhibition devoted to Patrick Heron.

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Begum is interested in the interplay of colour and light and the effects of repetition; in taking the everyday and presenting it in such as way as to encourage us to look at it afresh. Here, acknowledging that St. Ives was a fishing village long before it became primarily a holiday destination [the story of Cornwall writ small] she has taken two of the staples of the fishing industry – nets and floats – and ‘remade’ them. Nets, painted in a variety of colours – red, green and blue – hang, overlapping, from one wall; plaster moulds in different shapes and sizes, the size and shape of floats, are arrayed together on  a stand. The ordinary made art for us to take pleasure in and enjoy, while pointing up its original form and function. From artefact to art and back again.

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Having talked very interestingly about Begum’s work and how it was made, the invigilator mentioned, almost as an afterthought, an installation by Mark Dion just a short walk away that we might be interested in. Only open to the public one day a week, he thought. Maybe Wednesdays? So it proved. Wednesdays from 10.00am.

Dion is an American artist who is also interested in the everyday; in his case, specifically, the way knowledge – history – is collected and presented; interested in the process as well as the finished presentation or display. In 1999, for instance, to coincide with the opening of Tate Modern, he used volunteers to comb the shores of the Thames outside Tate Modern and Tate Britain for whatever objects and fragments of objects they could find; these were then cleaned, as far as possible identified, and finally placed on display, together with flow charts and photographs, in a large glass-fronted mahogany cabinet.

During his time in St, Ives, Dion, like Begum, found his inspiration, to a large degree, in the artefacts and livelihood of fishing; more specifically, with relation to Porthmeor Studios, in the harmonious ways in which the working fishermen and working artists have come to occupy the same space. Originally built for the pilchard industry, fishermen still use part of the building for storing gear and setting nets, while much of the rest was converted into artists’ studios which have been home to the likes of Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Patrick Heron.

Commissioned to make a work which would mark the completion of the restoration of the Studios, Dion followed his normal practice, using a group of students from Falmouth University, to source as many artefacts from the local fishing industry as possible; these Dion carefully arranged on one side of one of the cellars below the building, with artists’ tools and paraphernalia on the other.  The resulting work, The Maritime Artist, remains on display and is well worth seeing – but remember, on Wednesdays only, after 10.00am.

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NB There’s a fascinating exhibition of Rana Begum’s work in the Djanogly Gallery at Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham, until the end of September.

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Art Chronicles: Tate St.Ives

After being closed for rebuilding, renovation and refurbishment for what seems like a very long time, it was a surprise to walk into a building that seemed almost overwhelmingly familiar. The gallery spaces, the shop, the cafe … but wait … what is new  and what is pretty wonderful is the new permanent display – Modern Art and St. Ives – which does what, I think, many visitors come to gallery looking for – an in depth survey of the principle British Artists associated with Western Cornwall and St.Ives – Nicholson, Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon, Sandra Blow –  together with examples of the European and North American artist who inspired them and with whom their work is associated – Nicholson and Marlow Moss, for instance, alongside Mondrian.

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A conscious attempt seems to have been made to include a higher percentage of work by female artists than is all too often the case, including here Margaret Mellish, Marlow Moss and, particularly, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who is represented with three pieces which illustrate the development of her practice, from naively representational through differing kinds of abstraction and an almost fierce use of colour.

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: “Island Sheds, St. Ives, No. 1” 1940

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : “Rock Theme (St. Just)” 1953 [detail]
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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : “Red Form” 1954 [detail]
What has been added to the gallery – after lengthy negotiations with residents, the town council et cetera – is a single, large high-ceilinged room, which can be used, as in its initial display, to show the work of a single artist – in this case, Rebecca Warren – or, where necessary, divided by a series of removable walls.

For the exhibition of Warren’s witty and provocative work,  she has chosen the title All That Heaven Allows, taken from the 1955 Douglas Sirk film, which uses both melodramatic narrative form and heightened use of colour to dramatise the situation of a middle-class widow trapped within rigid expectations of class, gender and sexuality. Tall, angular sculptures of human figures are placed at irregular intervals across the room’s wide space; collages in neon vitrines placed here and there on the walls. Once visitors start walking around and between them, the sculptures begin to take on an exaggerated life of their own, commenting on the viewers and on themselves as works of art.

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The roughly worked, one might almost say deliberately ham-fisted, construction of the figures with their clumpy surfaces and irregular colour, make a marked and deliberate contrast to the smooth surfaces and satisfying curves of the Barbara Hepworth sculptures in the permanent exhibition, just as the wall pieces, with their apparently random, yet personal, selection of objects and use of neon, offer an alternative to the more austere and geometrical work of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo.

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Rebecca Warren : “All That Heaven Allows”

West Cornwall 2: Newlyn, Penzance, St. Ives

Known pleasures aside – Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, plus exhibitions at Penlee House [Stanhope Forbes, some very fine paintings indeed] and The Exchange in Penzance; excellent food at Mackerel Sky in Newlyn and the Porthmeor Café in St. Ives – our recent brief trip to the south-west yielded up newer delights, from a blowy ride on the open top deck of the A17 bus from Penzance to St. Ives to the deliciously straightforward and tip-top food at the small café at Penzance’s refurbished Jubilee Pool. Just three days but worth it.

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Jubilee Pool, Penzance
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Jubilee Pool, Penzance
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Newlyn Harbour
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Newlyn Harbour, St. Michael’s Mount in background
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Exterior, Tate St. Ives
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Rocks off The Island, St.Ives