Saturday, May 26, 2012

Get Carta

My curatorial debut, opening June 7th.

"Now this is the map of the district, and by the markings you can see where I hope to find what I seek..."
- Tom Swift in the Land of Wonders, or, The Underground Search for the Idol of Gold, Victor Appleton, 1917

GET CARTA brings together eight contemporary artists linked by their use of mapping in their varied practices concerned with social, political and cultural structures. However, rather than simply present artists who use the form, or the 'look' of the map, GET CARTA aims more specifically to investigate the artists' use of, or reliance on, explorations carried out by others.Cally Trench explores her local community by using the traditional convention of the aerial view, prepared by carrying out an investigation of her immediate area at ground level, however it is the areas she is denied access to that are the focus of this work, a network of local privacies. Stephen Walter's mapping of Liverpool, a place previously unknown to him, was made by speaking to the city's inhabitants: his graphite mapping of the city filled with a density of public and personal stories. Claire Brewster's art transforms the ordinary boundaries of nature and territory. Animal and plant life is remodelled in cut-up maps that have a simple fragility, the filigree paper cuts enabling a setting free of nature normally locked into distinct habitats. Vanessa Rolf uses embroidery on reclaimed fabrics to record notional voyages in the lonely wastes of Siberia, and the expanse of the arctic circle: specifically Norvik, one of the most northerly towns on the planet. Stephen Harwood revisits his home county via google street-view, which has now ventured out of the big cities into semi-rural England, for a series of drawings of remembered places from his childhood and adolescence. Californian artist Karen Ay's lightbox sculptures present images that originate from cracks in the pavements of her adopted home of East London, which are transformed into glowing satellite images, our ordinary surroundings imagined from space. Emma J Williams' Red Drawings are arterial roads, in fleshy pinks and reds, bleeding stained landscapes, that remind us of the lifeblood of our towns and cities, a theme continued in Susan Stockwell's wall mounted artery sculptures, an international mesh of named streets in far-flung countries.Whether such mapping belongs more to the world of fiction than fact - an artistic invention rather than a Cartographer's presentation of data - or is based on an atlas, globe or the street plan of a city or transport system, such material seems to provide a necessary framework for these artists in navigating their chosen locales as they (re)create them. The reliance may be slight or barely perceptible, a mere reference or starting point, or may be so strong and persuasive as to inhabit the form of the artist's investigation entirely. It may even provide some sort of strength of purpose.GET CARTA aims to explore how these past investigations are claimed by these artists, enabling something new to be said. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Foreign Country

Studio 1.1 at Braziers Park presents A FOREIGN COUNTRY, opening Saturday 19th May, as part of Oxfordshire Art Weeks festival

'The past is 'a Foreign Country' : they do things differently there... The title of the exhibition comes from L. P. Hartley's 'The Go-Between' and each of the three young artists' work has a peculiar relationship with the past and the passing of time. Stephen Harwood paints landscapes that are half-remembered locations from childhood, yet informed by images from the Shell Guide to England, images from a past he cannot have lived but which accompanied his family literally on childhood rides through the English countryside. Craig Andrews has assiduously photographed the decay and encroaching wilderness on the site of Liverpool's 'International Garden Festival' from the mid 80's - a decay which itself has now disappeared as the garden is newly revived. Loss and re-birth - Dai Roberts' sculptures re-work the aesthetic of the 'Festival of Britain' with a sincere desire to find new forms from old and breathe them back to vibrant life.


New Shell Guide Paintings

From an ongoing series of paintings based on John Piper's photographs in Piper/Betjeman's Shell Guide to Shropshire, Faber & Faber, 1951; the titles are the original captions from the book, anchoring the images back to their source. I will be showing them in A FOREIGN COUNTRY, opening this Saturday at Braziers Park, organised by Studio 1.1.

Characteristic detail at CHURCH STRETTON (2012)
Oil on canvas, 35 x 30cm

Looking W. over LLAN-Y-BLODWELL (2012)
Oil on canvas, 75 x 65cm

The ruined mansion, MORETON CORBETT (2012)
Oil on canvas, 75 x 65cm

One kind of Shropshire scenery. CARDINGMILL VALLEY II (2012)
Oil on canvas, 75 x 65cm

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Out of the Cosmic Storm

'This is no dream this is really happening...'
Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby

There are occult forces at work in Lindsey Bull's paintings, for Bull is a painter concerned with the traditions and practice of witchcraft and magic: belief-systems that sit somewhat uncomfortably in our modern age, dominated by technology and the prescriptiveness of science. Specifically it is the ceremony and ritual of these secret histories/societies that are the focus of these small cimmerian canvases, where robed figures gather in small groups in darkened rooms - spaces readied for ritual.

In Out of the Cosmic Storm, the picture that gives the exhibition its name, we are the unseen onlooker at a magical working. Two figures in pointed cowls meet in a Baconic enclosure, which we may understand as the protective area of the magic circle: a space where strange energies may be conjured but perhaps not always safely dispelled. They are engaged in an act of spirit-sumonance, their hands upon the 'shrew-stone' (a device of polished obsidian such as that used by John Dee), glowingly active in mid-reception. We can only guess at the requests being made of 'the other side', the other-worldly noises being raised; the crashes and bangs of a malevolent, newly disturbed spirit perhaps, or the sad wails of some trapped ghost. Less enveloped in darkness is Wise Witch, a white-robed wiccan emerging from a celestial softness, her face seemingly with us and without us as though listening for a call from some mysterious frequency; the white light behind her opening up: a gateway out of this world and onto some other plane. But whether she is an earth-bound high priestess or some glimmering elemental is left unanswered. Similarly indistinct is Accretion, in which we appear to be looking upon a strange pale figure emitting a golden light kneeling in a rose-orange prayer-space, flanked by robed attendants. Are the trio in homage to some unseen leader, or object of worship? Or are we witness to three dabblers in private, drugged communion? In Origins the witches sabbath is in full (drug-induced?) flow: the coven bowing to some tall supernatural visitor. But is the glowing interior of the magic circle an astral vision of flaming coals or the chemically enhanced persian carpet of a suburban sitting room?

All is not what it seems, and the scenarios presented are, seemingly, the results of altered states of consciousness where the ordinary barriers between the real and the invented/imagined are either blurred or done away with entirely. This work does seem infused with chemical assistance but drugs have always fuelled the world of magic and the supernatural, from the witches of the dark ages who convinced themselves they had flown at delirious cackling speeds over rooftops, having anointed their bodies with animal fats laden with hallucinogens, to Aleister Crowley's heroin habit that required daily doses so massive a single injection would have killed a novice. That the work merges occult mystery with psychedelia is key, for occult interest exploded with flower-power (although as Gary Lachman has commented there were many dark blooms in the summer of love), and in this way the work straddles time also, evoking both the late 19th Century magical elitisms of the Golden Dawn and the beads and bells of Alex and Maxine Sanders, the hip witches of 1960's Notting Hill.

Bull's practice is, by her own admission, 'an exploration of reality and illusion', and in these paintings what is and what may not be real becomes a constant, shifting question for the viewer. The work hits upon the same vein found in Rosemary's Baby (the tinkling piano theme is perhaps its soundtrack), particularly the scene where Mia Farrow is drugged and the coven's faces twist and distort around her as the chemicals pull at her consciousness. Likewise, these paintings move in and out of not only what we know to be sane and true, but also those other (un)realities that may be reached, intentionally or otherwise, with the aid of drugs, the imagination, or simply out of a need to believe in the other.

Lindsey Bull, Out of the Cosmic Storm
Transition Gallery, 22nd April 2012

Out of the Cosmic Storm

Originally written for a-n Interface

Friday, March 30, 2012

Postcard Wall

A postcard of one of my drawings is part of Sophie Hill's Postcardwall; Sophie collects art postcards and writes about them, adding a new card to the project each week. 300 postcards will be exhibited, with their accompanying texts, at Mall Galleries in April (opening 3rd April). I'm number 215.

Two Hundred and Fifteen

Lyth Hill

2009 by Stephen Harwood
Central St Martins MA Show;

Harwood’s work has the freedom and vitality that arguably only the medium of pencil can give. While paint cements design stationary, pencil glides across the paper. Touching only the very surface texture, lines are open to smudging – changing – feeling out the very cusp of their author’s idea. Harwood’s work is particularly embracing of this liquidity of design; his pictures appear in scribbles, darts, riding on lines that dance across the page. A moody sky is summoned from cascades of pencilled curls, dealt both lightly and harshly; untidy, they are careless but completely articulate in what they aim to portray. The hard lines of distant hills are pencilled in thickly; one can almost feel the determinedly applied pressure of nib to paper in the metallic sheen of sheer graphite. These definite moments appear across the page, angrily contrasting to the soft and rough edged shading. The movement created in these tonally variant squiggles is felt throughout the landscape. Mounting in the sky, it is caught across the fields and in the agitation of the scribbled trees. There is something nostalgic about Harwood’s Lyth Hill and it is not only carried by the familiarity of a British landscape. His drawing possesses the celebrated naturalism of the Romantics, the pathetic fallacy of projected emotion as these pencilled lines ripple with feeling – felt all the more with this base, childhood provoking, style of drawing.

Postcardwall - Two Hundred and Fifteen


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Gone to Earth and The Devil's Chair

From a new series of drawings based on Powell/Pressburger's 1950's movie of Shropshire author Mary Webb's novel, particularly the sequence where Jennifer Jones casts her spell on the Devil's Chair. Gone to Earth was filmed in and around the Stiperstones and many of the places where I grew up; so strange to see such familiar landscapes in that 1950's technicolour.

Portraits in the Landscape

A new series of drawings of my model Dan (see previous posting); graphite pencil on paper, 39 x 29cm.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Boys are Back in Town

These are my first figure-paintings since my MA exhibition at St Martins in 2010. There was a definite fallow period after I finished my masters; the research paper and that final push of an exhibition, particularly on top of a full-time 'day-job' exhausted me (how I miss those casual/part-time days prior to the economic collapse!). It was some months before I had an urge to make anything, however the work started to come back in stages as I gathered my energies. It began with small A5 drawings of Shropshire using Google Streetview, including Wilfred Owen's house in Shrewsbury, semi-rural roads and shopping precincts. Then, after some weeks of searching, I found a copy of John Piper/John Betjeman's Shell Guide to Shropshire on eBay, the first edition from 1951, generally thought of as one of the best Shell Guides which were quite avant-garde in their day, and began making drawings of the Piper photographs (they have his Neo-romantic eye). For a time I enjoyed being in the midst of all this drawing: one of the main things St Martins did for me was to encourage my drawing, which I'd always hidden from people, as something that could stand alone, it didn't need to be a try-out for a painting and could be important in its own right. Then the painting started again, after almost a year, again based on the Shell Guide, but I had become so attuned to graphite pencil and the strange beauty of these 1950's photographs, the paintings were almost entirely Paynes Gray and monochrome.

I knew the figurative element would be back at some point, but I was unsatisfied with the figures I had made on my MA. They were largely fictions: the painted proportions based on a real person's facial structure (most people's facial proportions are generally the same - it could have been anyone), and the boy himself invented over the top of this template/armature. This was interesting to a point, but not surprisingly they ended up strangely empty: an Alex Katz blankness. There was no sense of the person being tied to the place in which they were situated, no sense of personal history or of them looking to their developing future. I was therefore determined to find a real model, however this time I had a requirement: they had to be from the place I was painting.

I met Dan on Facebook, he went to my school so he came up in my 'people you might know' list, we also have mutual friends, actually people I went to school with who are still in the area, which is Church Stretton, a small town in South Shropshire. His face seemed to fit, so I sent him a message and was pleased to get an enthusiastic response almost immediately. He said he liked my work, recognised all the locations in my paintings, and my film too, and would be pleased to help. We did the photographs in a couple of hours driving in Dan's car around various country lanes on and around the Long Mynd, the countryside immortalised by Mary Webb and Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth, the very centre of my rural fixation. There were to be no fictions this time other of course than my own which are brought to the work in any event by the very nature of my making it. Also, and this is key, Dan was happy to be photographed; amazing the number of people who change the minute a camera is pointed at them, and as an artist the very thing you wanted to capture has slipped from view.

I think the work has been richer for having Dan as a starting point and my working practice is now more balanced. I am working on both drawing and painting projects, my sources are becoming varied and more diverse, and I no longer feel that blocked sensation that I did for a time after St Martins (only a continual mild annoyance that I've never got enough time...), and he is a part of that. Painting real people is something of a collaboration after all, and it was important that Dan was not only in the place, but also of the place: that is something the work needed.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Devil's Chair

This is an image from a current series of drawings about the Devil's Chair, a rocky outcrop of the Stiperstones ridge in Shropshire, a area of Victorian tin mines rich in myth and legend.

'Around the chair lie scattered boulders which, it is said, fell from the Devil's apron when its strings broke one day as he seated himself there to rest; he had carried them all the way from Ireland, to block up the ravine called Hell Gutter. Yes he often sits there, hoping his weight will drive the rock into the ground, for if that should happen it would spell disaster for England; anyone who climbs up to the chair in hot weather can smell brimstone round it.'
The Lore of the Land, A Guide to England's Legends (Westwood & Simpson, Penguin, 2005)

'It drew the thunder, people said.'
Mary Webb, The Golden Arrow (1916)

Sunday, November 27, 2011


The Zoo is something we all know, something we all did, like the first day at School, or learning to ride a bike. But as children we are in awe of the experience of real animals, oblivious to the complexities of their situation. Zoo, at new artist-run gallery Meter Room in Coventry, seeks to challenge these ideas of the Zoo as a space of childlike wonder and tranquil pastime, by bringing together five artists intent on exploring what this complicated space might mean.

Mike Bartlett's series of small-scale paintings explore the public spaces of London Zoo. The paintings began with a chance hearing of the BBC's radio interview with Andrew Sachs at the time of the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross scandal; the interview took place at the Zoo, seemingly by chance (perhaps Sachs lives nearby), but the location enabled an enlightening and emotional interview in which the actor recalled his childhood visits to the Zoologischer Garten, growing up in Berlin in the 1930's. The paintings, of the ramps, concrete enclosures and walkways, cafes and staff quarters, are hung in a broad constellation, and made in unlikely day-glow colours, luminous greens, and hot pinks. We are not told whether or not these are contemporary views, or perhaps the Sachs story so forced Bartlett into his own recollections that no revisit was necessary, or perhaps Bartlett painted from family photographs, but the paintings, with their luminous pinks are truly 'rose-tinted'. But then colour is often adjusted violently in painting that struggles to recall the long-distant past, the resulting distortion of a pan-handling of memory.

London Zoo is also the starting point for Alli Sharma's large group of painted animals, based on a collection of faded postcards, previously for sale to past generations in the Zoo's shop, now encased in plastic sleeves and stored in the Zoo's archives, which house all manner of printed ephemera dating back to the Zoo's opening in 1828. Sharma's project is ambitious, comprising some thirty-odd characterful portraits, seemingly a Zoo's worth, featuring proud lions, oblivious hippos, a tiger with a challenging stares, and all manner of birds, geckos, penguins, hippos, zebras. The installation occupies a large corner of the gallery space, like a veritable, chattering menagerie; one small group has even been released (or escaped?), out of the space and into the corridor. The paintings are deftly done, in the antique browns and paynes grey of the penny postcard, and a natural extension of the artist's previous explorations of the natural world. But these are, broadly speaking, small sadnesses, vignettes that remind of these hulking beasts in their confinement, particularly when one thinks that many of these images originate from photographs of the days before Zoos required licences. There are some cute pandas..., also a manic wildcat, the card that would have needed to be constantly re-filled in the postcard rack, bought by coach-loads of 1980's school children at a few pence a go.

Stephanie Quayle's sculptures also remind us of the sadness of Zoo-space, the eyes of her Orang-utan captures are uncannily lifelike, and the sensitively of Quayle's handling of her materials (terracotta, porcelain) with something of the clay-molding and pinching of Rebecca Warren, reminds us of their fragility; she is interested in 'the us-ness in their eyes'. Her Langur Monkey, made of white porcelain, sits mournfully on the window-sill of the gallery space, staring out to freedom, her animals are often perched on (unlikely) stools, or domestic objects as if to emphasise their wildness. A fascination for 'animal-ness', drives her practice, and her sculptures remind that animals possess intelligence and sensitivity, the personality behind the fur.

Cathy Lomax's Becoming Animals explores a dreamlike state, somewhere between sleeping and waking, nature and fantasy, where humans take on animal attributes or forms, We are on comfortable ground with Swan Dream, the fantasy of the princess of Swan Lake, or Cat Dream, which depicts cat-woman, but then the series quickly turns into a sliding scale of nightmarishness, as a young girl turned is into a bear, a man becomes half-horse (by desire or magical curse?), a indeterminate person is transformed, in dreamland, into a faceless rabbit, and a pagan deer makes himself known, like some image of pre-history, on a snowy mist-filled plain. These humanoid creatures, half-man half-circus, belong as much to the gothic novel or Victorian parlour story-telling, as to the land of dreams.

Anton Goldenstein's practice is an exploration of the history of anthropology and empire, with 'a sprinkle of absurdity'. Goldenstein is showing his sculpture The Pinkers - Ape Gothic, a teetering assemblage of cardboard boxes, the uppermost a 'Marlboro' box turned upside down, with a confusion of chimp's hands and straw, poking lifelessly from underneath, atop the box a plastic banana, as thought the chimps were just caught short of their comedic sustenance. The Marlboro box is key, and Goldstein uses references which seem glib at first hand but then one remembers that they may be shorthand for 'the world', or America (as with his past use of Micky Mouse, or Nasa in his series of Monkeys in space uniforms) and as well he might because for Goldenstein we are, or certainly have been, merely animals crawling the fact of the earth, trampling and imposing our control. As the artist says: 'We are just monkeys'.

Zoo forces us to consider what a Zoo is. Do we see them as educational places? It is interesting to reflect that it is only since the mid-1980's that Zoos in the UK have required licenses, and to remain open they should concern themselves as much with conservation as with the exhibition of animals. Or are they outmoded institutions connected to old-fashioned ideas of captivity and trophy-capture? Merely a constructed village of concrete sheds or enclosures, where species are transplanted to and imprisoned with no chance of escape; where they perhaps, loose the natural compulsions to hunt and source, to be part of breeding programmes generating new beasts, born into these unnatural spaces, unaware of their natural environments perhaps a day away on the other side of the world. There is an argument that the Zoo belongs to another era; perhaps that of Peter Beard, the big-game artist who made collages and photographs of Kenya, and who survived being skewered by an elephant's tusk.

But although the notion of the Zoo as a compound of brutality is perhaps too easy an assumption, Zoo tells us that the arguments are not easy ones, reminding us of the challenging cruelties that may sometimes be found underlying the furtherance of science.

Originally written for a-n interface

Zoo finishes today at Meter Room, in Coventry.

Meter Room, 58-64 Corporation Street, Coventry, West Midlands, CV11GF
Meter Room

Saturday, December 18, 2010

New Drawings

Part of a group of new drawings of the Shropshire of my childhood. These views are drawn from Google Streetview, which has now ventured out of the major towns and cities to survey much of semi-rural England. The use of Streetview seems to set up a similar distancing to the photographs that my parents send to me that I use for my paintings. Places are therefore revealed anew, but at a distance, both physically and in time.


Curated by New York writer and critic Christian Viveros-Fauné, Dirty Kunst purports to be something of a naughty survey, promising ‘rude art’ and filth that ‘frightens, provokes, angers, and just plain disgusts’. The majority of the artists hail from New York City, and the first piece encountered on entering the gallery is Joel Castro’s image of the Statue of Liberty rising from a pair of parted buttocks. This supposedly dare-devil shoving of America where the sun don’t shine jostles for vulgarity with Michael Joo’s three jars of piss of varying shades, Yellow, Yellower, Yellowest (1991), and Lisa Yuskavage’s acid-green study of a reclining girl thrusting her vagina forward, one of the few works that manages to be interestingly repellent, not least for its sickly-green luminosity.

Tom Gallant, one of three UK artists in the show, is showing a series of pages from porn magazines cut into with delicate filigree waves and sweeping curls, his interventions both beautifying and submerging the sexual shapes below. Less elegant is Patrick Hamilton’s dog kennel that houses a flickering VHS of a labrador performing cunnilingus on a woman, the sign ‘Bobby’s House’ hanging cutesily over the entrance, but rather than shocking the piece is comedic, even slightly silly.

I was looking forward to seeing Sebastian Errazuriz’s piece, a golden projection of a supposedly well-hung Jesus Christ, but the projector, jutting from a half-opened suitcase, hadn’t been switched on. I looked at the wall expectantly, then looked at the gallery assistant, who silently switched the projector on at the plug, but it was a shame that the magic of that hovering image was now slightly tainted. A shame too that the gallery space was soundtracked by loud, off-putting Jazz. I asked if the music was part of the exhibition and the assistant replied ‘No, I’m just listening to the radio’. I wondered if it was worth having a conversation about whether or not the music might affect the viewer’s experience of the show, or how he thought the artists involved might feel about having his personal soundtrack imposed on their work, but decided against it.

The gallery aside, I desperately wanted this show to live up to its press release; I wanted to be challenged by an art taken up to, and perhaps even over, those lines of ordinarily acknowledged modern decencies – but none of this work shocks. In fact I can think of many artists whose work of thirty or forty years ago was more shocking and provocative. Genesis P-Orridge’s actions of the mid-70′s for example, in which he harmed and injected himself, wrapped in wires and his own blood and sperm. Or the art of Chris Burden, or that of Cosey Fani-Tutti exposing herself in mens magazines. These artists risked being ostracised, or worse, risked prolonged personal injury in challenging the accepted. They were also artists whose work used something of themselves, so perhaps an artwork which shocks does so because it results from the artists use of self as artistic device. The old adage of suffering for one’s art may not be merely an aimless cliche, after all.

So: Dirty Kunst does not provoke enough, not because London is made of sterner stuff than New York, but because few of the participants seem to really mean it. Which image of a national symbol disappearing up a human rectum is more affecting: a real image of an experience of it, in all its sexual nastiness, or an approximation of that experience shot out of photoshop? Many of these artists seem to be operating at an arms length and, in this context, Dirty Kunst becomes a mere playground of appropriation. At best, a show about artists laying heavy claims on the situations of others – at worst, a show of artistic excuses.

Dirty Kunst finishes today at Seventeen
Dirty Kunst

This review was originally written for and published on Art Wednesday

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Leon Kossoff - The Elder Statesman of British Painting

Leon Kossoff is a London painter; his art is concerned with the East End of his childhood, and certain North London territories, too. Like Frank Auerbach, his contemporary and artistic twin, he does not travel, preferring to paint these familiar stomping grounds again and again, so that the work seems like some obsessive investigation carried out in the hope that something new and unexpected might reveal itself. Kossoff is drawn to the underbelly rather than the grand-view: the railway tracks and arches, the beaten back-roads, places of demolition and dilapidation. His landscapes of Kings Cross or Dalston Junction suffocate under leaden skies, or seem filled with darkness and rain; London weather described in paint. And for Kossoff, as for Auerbach, the paint is the thing. Lashings and scrapings of it, the thicker the better, so that each picture becomes something of a battleground. Portraits and landscapes are taken almost to the edge of recognition as he works and reworks; the subject almost lost in the sheer stuff of paint, the impasto seeping out over the edges of the boards (mere canvas couldn’t stand such brutality). Each work seems more an excavation of the city than a mere painting of it.

At 83, he is something of an elder statesman of British painting – he is also a solitary individual who, despite a career spanning some fifty years, remains little known to the general public. Like Auerbach, and the third gang-member Lucien Freud, he has never courted attention, or even, especially, an audience, but even so there have been a number of quiet fanfares for a current rare event: a show of brand new work in London, his first in almost ten years...

Stephen's full review is on

Leon Kossoff is at Annely Juda Fine Art, London W1, until Dec 17th.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Occult Window at Donlon Books

Donlon Books, Broadway Market, Hackney

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sensing Nature at Mori

Japan, with its seasonal extremes and ancient landmass, its crowded futuristic cities and mountainous outlying areas, seems an ideal island on which to carry out a modern survey of nature and its varied depictions, its effect on man and his environment. The gallery too seems ideal: Mori Art Museum is after all an international outpost of big ticket artists, able to mount whatever it wants, when it wants - provided it is big and bold, for Mori specialises in installations with the wow factor, lavished with its must-have catalogues.

The show opens with Snow, an installation by Yoshioka Tokujin in which thousands, perhaps millions of tiny feathers are heaped into an enclosed glass-walled area of one of Mori's interstellar spaces. Unseen electric fans whoop the feathers up in a glorious three-minute blizzard of whiteness then cut-out, leaving the feathers to settle lazily and beautifully into drifts and mounds before another cyclone of air spurts it all up again a few moments later. Yoshioka is a former clothes designer turned artist and was once an assistant to Issey Miyake; in fact Snow was originally designed and produced for a Miyake shop window in 1997 and is reproduced in Sensing Nature for maximum art-effect in a space fourteen-meters wide by six meters high and eight (count 'em! Eight!) meters deep. Yoshioka is also showing a group of sculptures; Waterfall, a 5.8-meter lozenge of gently rippling solid glass, is his weakest piece. The (rather bossy) catalogue commentary tells us that it is 'sublime and overwhelming' and that it was inspired by the crash of a waterfall into a pool, but there is no echo of that crash in the piece. The catalogue also informs us that we are looking at the longest piece of 'optical glass' in the world; bit of a boast of production costs there, and it's probably fair to say Yoshioka's work is very over-designed. Alexander von Vegesack, director of Germany's Vitra Design Museum says Yoshioka is 'unique in the field of design'. Perhaps so, for his work is sought after in both the design world and the international art circuit.

Shinoda Taro, a former landscape gardener in the Japanese tradition, is showing Reverberation: projected moving images of Tokyo and outlying rural areas presented as three hugh screens in a triangle formation, soundtracked by a persistent rumbling; we are not told if this is the sound of distant heavy industry, or something altogether more sinister from deep underground. The first screen shows the suburban Tokyo where Shinoda lives interspersed with images of Tapir at Tama Zoo; the second screen takes the viewer on a journey along the canal-ways of Tokyo, and the third pans across the reservoirs that feed Tokyo's inhabitants: beautiful images of water and sky. The space is so large it is possible to move around this triptych, viewing the moving developing landscape images both separately from each other but also at the edges where the screens meet, so that the descent into the the gloomy tunnels of Tokyo's urban canalways abutts the sweeping wide open waters of the reservoirs and their lovely attendant skies in a sort of natural tension. It becomes apparent, in the darkness, that these three screens are folded around a further space, a small white room, clinically bright, in which we encounter the Model of Oblivion, a work Shinoda has been developing since 2006. We are confronted with a long white table, and what appears to be a white plastic mountain range at the far end over which pours red liquid, ostensibly blood, but it is too thin, which gathers in a seeping, encroaching pool covering about two thirds of the long tablet before dripping down the sides where it is collected by pumps and motors and regurgitated back over the mountain range. It is the very model of futility (Nature's lifeblood on a cyclical slab); the continuous bleeding of the landscape, and its regurgitation, seems filled with a sort of earthbound hopelessness. But all is not lost!... for in the next room is Ginga ('Galaxy'), an immense, round basin of white liquid, its peaceful stillness suddenly and occasionally irked by the jetted propulsion of droplets electronically released from some thirty mineral-water bottles suspended above, causing a dance of pin-pricks, ripples radiating all over. The piece was informed by the gardens of Tofuku-ji temple in Kyoto, where the stones are the stars around which the small pebbles are raked in a swirling representation of starlight... the milky-way in microcosm. If Ginga is Shinoda's Heaven, and the filmic expanses of suburban Tokyo, and its accompanying bass-ratting soundscape are his Earth, then perhaps the Model of Oblivion is Man, bleeding inbetween.

The third artist is Kuribayashi Takashi, who studied traditional Japanese landscape painting and lives and works in Germany. His vision of nature is surveyed from the world's edges and borders; he constructs immersive, somewhat theatrical environments that force the viewer into an act of territorial exploration. There is an obvious playfulness - a trompe l'oeil surprise in his control of the viewer entering into or merely peering through a hole, from one world/space into another. His installation Wold aus Wold (Forest from Forest), is a bleak, bald, pale landscape, made entirely from molded paper pulp of handmade Japanese papers, featureless apart from skeletal, leafless trees. This land fills a room, but the work is not installed on the floor as one might expect: it bisects the room so that the viewer is able to move both under the landscape, albeit crouching at certain points, but also able to stand and look out over it through various occasional openings in what appears to be the forest floor. Examining the underneath of this mysterious forest-space, it's opposite under-space with it's wooden frame and tape, is a bit like seeing the main play-act but also backstage, the pulleys and lighting rig... In this work we are experiencing the main event but also all that supports the unfolding fiction; dual dramas unfolding in parallel lands. That his work is titled/named in German further forces the viewer to consider where territories begin and end. The final rooms of the exhibition house Kuribashi's landmass/mountain Inselu (Islands), a big squat Mount Fuli, some ten meters high, with a perspex dias atop. The viewer is invited to climb a makeshift platform of wood and scaffolding to peer over the peak and its clear lid, which seems to reference the ancient belief of wordly-flatness, the remaining mountain space beneath perhaps representative of the great hulking depths of the world's oceans. In Kuribayashi's final room we come across a Yatai, a traditional Japanese food stall, like a sort of hut on a wheelbarrow, installed in the gallery space, which Kuribashi uses to explore border territories throughout various locations. It is a travelling vantage point that not only has to be pushed (controlled) by the artist, it also opens a flap at its chosen site and receives visitors, an immediate engagement with the artist's chosen site. Kuribashi films his adventures with this Yatai, and is often accompanied by jolly musicians (the stall is a traditional feature of festivals), but that does not mean this work is glib. We see in one film for instance, the artist being admonished by guards at the border of North and South Korea.

There is such an energetic universality at play in Sensing Nature; the show seems to reach into both sea and sky and further, to the stars beyond, all played out against Japan's rich cultural bedrock. It seems remarkable that such a broad investigation is possible with only three participants... but they are an interesting and articulate grouping, and all three in their thirties, with a modicum of international exposure but not too much, which suggests they were chosen for their separate abilities to speak about the world, rather than any sort of tick-boxing of fashionable artists. Oh dear, there I go again... I am clearly suspicious of some of these big, overblown spaces. I admit I occasionally mistrust the motives of their programmers and curators, but Sensing Nature is such an artistic success that it is, of course, a curatorial success also. The artists are interesting too, for their former activities: Shinoda's time tending ornate Japanese gardens is an utterly appropriate grounding for his current cosmological concerns, likewise Kuribashi's patrolling of borders feeds off the endless horizons of painted scrolls he spent many years studying.

Coming to the end of the show I felt a slight hankering for some drawing, but this was not lost on Mori for they have this too, in a punchy display of drawings and studies in the shop, many of which are for sale and reasonably priced. Shinoda's are particularly interesting: he draws colourful cartoons of himself naked and gesturing amongst naive, childlike studies of his sculptures and ideas, Yoshioka's plan for Snow, a small red-pencil drawing of a man seen side-on, standing before a great elemental whoosh seems to have something of ancient Japan about it whilst remaining a modern picture, and such is the success of this show: it manages to show us new ways of speaking, without being afraid of or wishing to escape or deny the broader cultural context, which is Japan is particularly complicated. Sensing Nature succeeds in its reexamination, and like all successful art exhibitions it sheds new light on our perceptions.

Sensing Nature - Rethinking the Japanese Perception of Nature
Mori Art Museum
Mori Tower., Roppongi Hills,

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Private Workings

They are quite secretive really. I use them very much as a sort of worrying technique, of doodling and understanding how a work is going to happen
Rachel Whiteread on drawing, Art World magazine, Feb/Mar 2008

Rachel Whiteread is showing drawings at the Tate Britain, representing her various preoccupations and projects over some twenty years, but they are not plans or technical workings in any exacting sense – more a diary, or a thinking-ground of artistic process. They are sculpturally rich, for Whiteread uses varnishes and gums that pinch and flood and wrinkle the graph papers so that the drawings take on something of the materiality of sculpture; correction fluid is used like paint, and it is perhaps understandable that Whiteread would wish to use materials other than oil paints and acrylics in exploring sculptural ideas, loaded as they are with painterly baggage. The drawings are accompanied by maquettes and models of works that we are, in the main, familiar with, so that it is possible to continually cross-reference. There is also a vitrine of objects – further pointers towards a greater understanding of Whiteread’s concerns with material and with surface: crystal balls, skulls, teeth and jaws, fossils, books and bones, waxen tablets, twine and rock, children’s shoes and natural stone. Collected objects kept close in the studio, radiating their strange suggestive powers. We are shown a similar, ongoing collection next to the vitrine comprising rows of postcards, mainly vintage tourist postcards with old-fashioned sepia colourings. On many, Whiteread has intervened with white-out, or with pen; some have punched holes of varying sizes in whole or in part of the photographic image so that we view something of the space behind, slight shadows throwing the flatness into three dimensions, an attempt, seemingly, to upgrade the pictorial flatness to the condition of sculpture.

The centrepiece of the show, for me, was something quite personal. When I arrived in the East End of London, in the Autumn of 1993, there was a commotion going on down the road – at the corner of Grove and Roman Roads, in one of those desolate, bombed out pockets, Whiteread had made House, the now famous cast of the inside of number 193 Grove Road, the middle-house of a crumbling Victorian terrace. The ambition began a year previously with Ghost, a cast of an North London sitting room installed at Chisenhale Gallery. Whiteread’s proposal was to ‘mummify the air’, so that the chalkyness of the plaster filled every inch of space, the resulting, and corresponding, negative reassembled in blocks; its focus the sooty traces left in the fire grate. But House went further than Ghost: a weighty reminder of not merely a single room, but an entire dwelling. The work was commissioned by Artangel, and sponsored by Becks Bier, and it was technically difficult. Whiteread hadn’t discovered at that point, for instance, how to cast stairs, so the main staircase – which would have been viewable from the south side of the sculpture – was missing. Tower Hamlets Council gave their permissions, which were subsequently and sadly reneged, adding fuel to the fire of the resulting hoo-ha. It was a confrontational work.

I knew I would find something in the exhibition that would remind me of House, and, sure enough, I spent a good deal of time with a group of four colour photocopies. Blown-up photographs of the Grove Road terrace taken prior to the demolition and the reinstallation of 193, when its dusty corners were preserved, briefly, in concrete, Whiteread had filled in the house/void on the copies with an approximation of its proposed sculptural re-draft in tipp-ex. They look oddly accurate, and I realised, in the middle of this exhibition, how important House was to me. It was probably the first time I became aware of the complexities and potential power of public sculpture, but also the first time I became aware of a sort of locking of horns between the art-world and the general public, and this is probably the case for many artists of my generation. The work provoked a big debate on modern art, of how and why it could/should be sited, and what on earth its point might be. It was an interesting time to be making art in London. House survived only a matter of weeks. Whiteread has spoken of her regret of barely being able to spend any time with the work, but it was perhaps fitting that it should be bulldozed, that it should have been allowed to exist only fleetingly – as transient and elusive as the void-space it filled.

Rachel Whiteread Drawings
Tate Britain
Until 11th January 2011