Alserkal: Art In Dubai

Dubai is the modern-day crossroads of East and West. An eight hour’s flight from two thirds of the globe, it is ideally situated to display a wealth of contemporary art from the Islamic diaspora, as well as Northern European artists. I have written elsewhere of the dichotomy at the heart of art curation in Qatar: a lot of money, but a lack of direction. Direction is thankfully not a problem in Dubai, as all points of the compass lead to this cross-continental city and its artistic enclave Alserkal.

Sited within what my brochure described as the city’s ‘gritty, industrial’ district of Al-Quoz, I reached Alserkal following a 35 minute walk from a brief diversion at the fairly unremarkable Meem Gallery elsewhere in the city. Dubai is not built for walking. Understandable, given the summer heat, when a car’s use is for mobile air conditioning as much as transport. Filled with wide-eyed, cod psychogeographic ideas about using the opportunity to walk between the galleries as an opportunity to experience ‘the real’ Dubai, I was unable to indulge my inner flaneur, focusing too much on leaping between sandbank sidewalks while the real Dubai drove past me in a cascade of battered 4x4s and water trucks. The smell of Al-Quoz was quite something. Walking along 8th street, roughly parallel to the Sheikh bin Zayed road, Dubai’s aorta, oil never left my nostrils. Oil in a host of flavours. Gasoline at filling stations. A tangy must escaping from print factories and bottling plants.

There was no gradual transition into urbanised grot about the space of Alserkal; it was just suddenly there, with the advertising posters and clean graphics on its outside the only real clue that it wasn’t another motor works facility. The block was a grid of warehouse and lock-up spaces which were variously used as galleries, office spaces for design agencies and upmarket, organic coffee stations. Shoreditch on the sand, if you will.

Farhad Ahrarnia – Something For The Touts, The Nuns, The Grocery Clerks And You @ Lawrie Shabibi


Fahrad Ahrarnia. Something For The Touts, The Nuns, The Grocery Clerks And You, No. 17. 2015. Work on cardboard.

Having accumulated a good portion of sand in my shoes, and dodged litter blowing through the air along the road into Al-Quoz, the first gallery I visited appropriately had cardboard, and not canvas, as the medium. The press release heralded Farhard Ahrarnia’s pieces as a recollection of Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard works, but they lacked Rauschenberg’s structural play, being mostly utilised as a two dimensional surface. Ahrarnia took discarded boxes from the urban centres of Iran and repurposed them as a backdrop for tazhib, a Persian form of gilding typically used to ornament books. Al-Quoz was an appropriate place for them to be displayed, being the engine of Dubai’s manufacturing and packaging. The second half of the exhibition drew upon a different craft; that of khatam, a micro-mosaic technique which requires a methodical collecting of filaments of different materials (ivory, copper, and brass are common) which are cut at the cross-section to reveal the underlying geometric complexity. In Ahrarnia’s version the strips are laid out in dynamic collages, which were often in deliberate homage to pieces by Lissitzky and Malevich. Ahrarnia was very open about his influence from the Russian Modernists, and to see Persian craftwork colluding with the Russian avant-garde was one of many pleasant surprises which Alserkal afforded.

Lawrie Shabibi, Al-Quoz 1, Al Serkal Avenue, Unit 21

Ramtin Zad – Retrospective @ Salsali Private Museum

The Salsali Private Museum was a terrific space, with immaculate lighting piercing through black walls and black ceiling to allow details like the impossibly radiant tail of an acrylic peacock to shine through. There was not a dull piece in this exhibition, with Zad commanding an impressive and consistently penetrative style through painting, drawing, and sculpture.

On the back wall were the most imperious pieces, large canvases with different scenes united by cornucopias of people writhing and melding in forms which approached the botanical. A constant throng shapeshifting from man to beast to flower. Crowds flew on the backs of eagles. Rabbits, bears, humans and deer danced and ate and fucked at the centre of dark woods. Canvases with dramatically flat perspectives sucked me in as vigorously as the intense landscapes of late Van Gogh or Kiefer. Thick brushstrokes depicted crowds of spectre-spectators, their flesh with the slippages of candle wax, all in a carnivalesque turn reminiscent of the recently exhibited James Ensor at the Royal Academy.


Ramtin Zad, Magician. 200×150 cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2015. Courtesy the artist and Salsali Private Musuem.

The paintings touched on places and symbols from Persian folklore which would chime readily with a native viewer (the Damavand mountain, mythological symbol of Iranian pride and resistance, is namechecked in one piece), but less so with ignorant Westerners like myself. That soon, however, became irrelevant: Zad still provided overwhelming sights which packed a punch regardless of prior knowledge. As the press release described, Zad fused a private language of his unconscious with mythological archetypes – not knowing the man or his cultural language that well, I should have felt cut adrift. But I never felt alienated – in the city where simulacra towers rise out of dead ground, I felt alive.

Some paintings had a millennarian air, especially one which had a Moses figure cleaving apart the Red Sea, towering over one of Zad’s distinctive masses of figures. The painting’s title was given as ‘Return of Trump’. An enigmatic one, as the painting seems incredibly timely, though it was actually painted in 2012. I emailed the artist to try and get to the bottom of it, but without a reply my best guess is that the title is a later addition to the piece. Still, at a time when the new American president is keen to roll back rapprochement with Iran and paint it as the international enemy number one again, vibrant Iranian artists like Zad are needed to speak out for his country, and he did so with aplomb.


Ramtin Zad, Peacock. 200x150cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2015. Courtesy the artist and Salsali Private Museum.

How does Zad see himself? A self-portrait at the end of the gallery held a clue, with the artist as a ‘Magician’, levitating from a chair in front of a crowd that mixed people with anthropomorphic animals, or maybe just people wearing masks. Irreverent yet self-confident, it was a profile fitting a man who paints so powerfully despite not being much past thirty.

Salsali Private Museum, Al-Quoz 1, Street 8, Al Serkal Avenue

Bernhard Buhmann – Modern Times @ Carbon 12

Bernhard Buhmann was another ringmaster, conjuring tricksters and jesters of his own, albeit on rigorously portioned canvases. Half of the pictures were figurative paintings constructed from 4×3 square grids. These were the stronger, and just about justified the artist’s claim that the pictures invoked the split of identity facilitated by social media. However, I felt that Buhmann was caught between continuing his usual character shapes and types, and engaging with post-internet art. For what it’s worth, I find Douglas Coupland’s pictures in the latter field to be similar, but much more effective.


Bernhard Buhmann, Mister D. 200x130cm. Oil on canvas. 2016. Courtesy the artist and Carbon 12 gallery.

Likewise, though the abstract paintings which constituted the other half of Buhmann’s show weren’t bad, and were a commendable effort at trying on a different hat, they lacked the freewheeling charm of his early paintings. Buhmann’s art seems to be self-consciously receding to straighter and crisper lines, and I missed the steampunk world of aeronautics and harlequins and from his prior output. Modern Times treads much of the same territory as his previous show The Pretenders, but cannot say it as well as The Pretenders did, that show being the chrysalis of Buhmann’s career so far. Those paintings, loosely based on circus performers assembled out of bright colours and animal faces and disproportionate body parts, made the more nuanced, yet more impactful, statement on identity.

Carbon 12, Unit 37, Alserkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1

Safwan Dahoul – Miniatures @ Ayyam Gallery

A dark room away from the glare of the Dubai sun was the ideal setting for Safwan Dahoul’s haunting dream visions. A continuation of his long-running Dream series, Miniatures was a departure in form, transferring his pictures to a smaller scale. The gallery trumped up these miniatures as being like storyboards, and this was true to an extent, but the comparison faltered through giving too much preference to film. This wasn’t some incomplete or deficient work, waiting to be built up into something more. These were intimately rendered vignettes where the physical size of the pieces were crucial to their claustrophobic feel.


Safwan Dahoul, Dream 139. 10x10cm. Acrylic on wood. 2016. Courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Dahoul has stated that his Dreamer, though she is a woman, is a version of himself. But that undersells his ability to capture something inherent to female experience. One of the most affecting sights I saw in Alserkal was a triptych in the corner of this exhibition, focusing on the dreamer’s belly: first with a close-up of it, then a close-up which revealed a foetus inside, then finally the woman’s belly with her arms crossed in front of it. It could have been in protection, in enchantment, in memory, or something else entirely, but each interpretation held a new well of feeling. It’s the exhibition in microcosm: symbolic, elusive, and all the more powerful for it. With such small paintings, Dahoul left elusive and allusive pointers to what’s happening in his native Syria, like the triptych where his dream-protagonist appeared to dissolve before the viewer’s eyes. These miniatures were paintings as portholes,  with passing glimpses into portals of a female psyche. I felt distinctly like a voyeur, with the dreamer’s expression impassive through it all. Visually, Dahoul’s dreamer looked European, French even, with a close-cropped bob of black hair. But hung closely together, and with a distinct narrative edge making a viewer less likely to contemplate in front of them, the vignettes could have been a comment on the passage, upheaval and suffering of Syria’s refugees.

It is worth mentioning that while Dahoul is conversant with early 20th century artists’ investigation of dreams, and shares traits with Picasso in his manipulation of the female form, dreams are traditionally important in Arabic culture. Medieval Arab cultures composed volumes and volumes of ‘dreambooks’, encyclopedias designed to be used to unlock the symbolism of objects which presented themselves in dreams. And unlike the self-contained, diagnostic dreams of Freudian psychoanalysis, these dreambooks had a divinatory role, where they revealed something hidden yet imminent in the world, instead of the dreamer’s anxieties. For a series that is based around dreams and unreal worlds, it had an oblique yet incisive analysis of Dahoul’s native country, particularly since the Year Zero of 2011. Even on a purely conceptual basis, the questions loomed large: with the horror happening in Syria, who is to say that reality is less surreal than a dream? Are we collectively daydreaming through humanitarian crisis?


Safwan Dahoul, Dream 120. 13x13cm. Acrylic on wood. 2016.

Having worked on his Dream series since 1987, Dahoul ought to be commended for having pursued a singular vision so successfully for so long. But he does so much more than that, weaving a subtle wider commentary throughout the works.

Ayyam Gallery, Units 11-12 Al Serkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1

Thaier Helal – Landmarks II @ Ayyam Gallery

Just over the other side of the road was an exhibition of Dahoul’s compatriot, Thaier Helal. For all that a Western observer might wring their hands about the difficulty at representing the chaos of the world, those problems pale in comparison to those faced by Syrian artists, who must try to come to terms with the displacement, devastation, and death incurred by the ongoing Civil War. Thaier Helel’s latest effort is more oblique than his 2012 exhibition In Army We Trust, which pilfered the iconography of the Syrian army. Helal looked deep within the earth for Landmarks II, representing the cartography of his native land through mixed media on canvas. His pieces were as much sculptural as they are pictorial, with layers of crust and sediment erupting from the canvas. Grit, glue, sand and salt layered with paint in a process depicted in an illuminating video on display at the exhibition, which hit the perfect middle ground between academic over-explanation and brevity.


Thaier Helal, Sand. 190cm diameter. Mixed media on canvas. 2016.

The works were powerful, and not in a handwavy spiritual sense. They weren’t idly romantic visitations, in a way that English art at times of war very often is; they were hard, concrete, and did a solid job of deferring to nature as the supreme authority in Syria’s fate, the judge of what will emerge through decay or rebirth.

Ayyam Gallery, Units 11-12 Al Serkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1


Nick Brandt – Inherit The Dust @ Custot Gallery


Nick Brandt, Underpass With Elephants. 2015. Photo credit: Nick Brandt. Courtesy Custot Gallery Dubai.

As with Safwan Dahoul, Nick Brandt presented a body of work which was part of a long-running series, but could still be enjoyed in its own right. Brandt took monumental photographs of animals he snapped for earlier projects, and cleverly choreographed enormous prints of those around the urban sprawl of East Africa. Elephants loomed out of factories and landfills; zebras stood on railway lines. They were all shaded with Brandt’s distinctive monochrome, a technique which made the pictures, and the people and animals within them, look like preemptive memorials.

The pictures were all the more effective from being shot on location, rather than edited in post-production, thanks to the chance encounters of elements in the photograph. So a family of elephants propped up beneath an underpass were viewed with awe by homeless children, and the zebra originally photographed by a lake had his surroundings seamlessly overlaid with those of a fetid waterway surrounding a factory. A chimpanzee appeared to mournfully examine the wreckage of a landfill.

When scale is so important, occasionally it can be difficult to appreciate finer details, particularly in the smaller works, having got used to large prints which aimed to impress a reaction upon the viewer instantaneously. But the smaller works had their charms too, like the photograph which showed a ranger crouching by two dispossessed elephant tusks so that his body shape resembled the elephant’s head. It’s always tempting to divorce aesthetic impact from social conscience, to think that the ivory tower of art is apolitical and amoral. But ivory is hardly apolitical, as Brandt’s tusks remind us. It was a mark of the exhibitions in Alserkal to marry those artistic and political tendencies, sometimes held as contradictory in Western art. Yet it is difficult to imagine that, if we were to undergo something as catastrophic as the Civil War which has afflicted Safwan Dahoul and Thaier Helal’s homeland, for example, we would feel the same way.

Custot Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Unit 84, Street 6A, Al-Quoz 1.

Abderrazzak Sahli – Tolerance And Peace

Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory: Modern Art From North Africa @ Elmarsa Gallery

I technically entered Elmarsa in error, as the gallery was in the process of transitioning between exhibitions. But, true to Alserkal’s openness, the staff were perfectly happy for me to amble around their work-in-progress space and get almost two whole exhibitions for the price of one…which was still free, as all of these gallery spaces were.

Downstairs, a posthumous retrospective of Abderrazzak Sahli was being dismantled. As with Farhad Ahrarnia, the twin influences of Islamic abstract art and the Russian avant-garde were held in parallel. In contrast to the abrupt angles and shapes of Malevich and Lissitzky, Sahli’s canvases danced with fluid forms which were much more vibrant and cartoony. Think Miami, not Moscow. Some of the more neon shaded paintings could be screenshots from the intro credits to an early 1990s kids’ TV show. But the title of Tolerance And Peace alerted the viewer to Sahli’s high-minded intentions. He said that his work ‘[translated] diversity’ and that the ‘clutter of objects’ in it was ‘nothing but a representation of the crowd’. For Sahli the crowd is a heterogeneous dance, diverse underneath uniformity, like sand under a microscope. His later works vibrated and shimmered like the most aquatic Paul Klee paintings.


Abderrazzak Sahli, Untitled. 120x120cm. Acrylic on canvas. 1993. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery.

Against the rainbows casting out across the gallery, some austere works stood out, consisting of white shapes against a black background which had the concentrated intensity of Matisse’s cut-outs. Without colour, the focus could switch to Sahli’s use of shape. As ever, the danger to read too much into abstract painting looms large, but the overwhelming impression, at least, was of tumbling leaves, crescent moons, and dynamic human forms, arms outstretched. It certainly felt crowded, even in the austere pieces, and it made an interesting counterpart to Ramtin Zad’s wild, fleshy brush strokes when painting his pile-ons of spectators, as Sahli came off as much more confident and celebratory of gatherings of things and people.

Though this exhibition focused on Sahli’s paintings, there was dialogue with his sculptural work, and some of his paintings communicated ideas which were also realised by him in three dimensions. The abundance of works which consisted of frames-within-frames evoked the image of the illuminated manuscript; the decorated word. Similarly, the cut-out style of the austere works made overtures to a specifically Arabic architectural form: Mashrabiya latticework. Used in windows and dressing screens, it’s a type of wood design where the wood is peppered with small holes which allow light and air pass through, but maintain privacy as one cannot be clearly seen through them. It’s often used in screens which would allow women to undress behind when indoors. Abstracted from a design context, and shot through with Sahli’s distinctive colours and rhythmic shapes, the door motif is, in the coloured works, made sexy with suggestions of glimpses and teases. In the austere ones, there is a more concentrated focus on illumination from darkness or ignorance, or freedom from tyranny.


Nejib Belkhodja, Abstraction Numero 64. 99x64cm. Oil on canvas. 1964. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery.

Mashrabiya can be found all over the medina squares of North African cities, which was in turn the structural motif toyed with by Nejib Belkhodja in the group exhibition upstairs, Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory, a ‘greatest hits’ collection of post-War artists from the Maghreb. The clarity of line and colour in his work is staggering, especially considering it predated digital art – from a distance, you could mistake one of his paintings for a QR code. I had a sense that among the North African artists, there was a willingness to embrace structure and form within abstract expressionism which would be anathema to some of the more self-directed North Americans. I felt that the Abstract Expressionism exhibition, just finished at the Royal Academy, was striking enough, but even in a shed on the outskirts of Dubai, artists from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria et al more than held their own against Pollock and co in Burlington House’s grand halls. 

There is something of Franz Kline’s enigmatic calligraphy in Rachid Koraichi’s etchings and sculpture, but of course the latter artist has a solidified relationship with Arabic text and symbol, whereas Kline’s relies on vagueness in his brushstrokes. Not to say that Kline is a worse or less educated painter (far from it), but it’s worth pointing out that the African artists’ manipulation of text went beyond source material into something essential to their identity and self-expression. Nja Mahdaoui made pure art out of calligraphy; Khaled Ben Slimane fused it with pottery. At the other end of the scale, Aly Ben Salem’s Le Jardin d’Eden was an outpouring of Oriental life and colour to make Henri Rousseau’s head spin, depicting two alluring women spangled together in a torrent of flowers, reeds, birds, forged by daring tones of blue and black. To make another overwrought comparison to a Western artist, it was a painting which made Klimt look impoverished. It was sheer magic, and any attempt to make a weedy critical comment was dashed by the saucily insouciant expression in the central figures’ eyes.


Aly Ben Salem, Le Jardin d’Eden. 74x52cm. Gouache on paper. 1950. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery. Please note this picture has been unintentionally cropped.

The deep reds and oranges of Emna Masmoudi and Asma M’Naoaur burned with the Mediterranean sun, the Rothko to the Pollockian intensity of lines bedecking  Mahjoub Ben Bella’s art. Elmarsa should be applauded  for including Masmoudi and M’Naoaur, as they represented the more recent vanguard of women in North African painting. If there was one downside to the overall experience at Alserkal, the relative paucity of women was one. But then again, that’s a criticism which has been made of abstract expressionism all over the world: that it is, to put it bluntly, a load of cock waving.

Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory dipped a toe in the water for a colourful, thoughtful, and still fertile art scene and has allowed me to uncover even more artists from Tunisia and countries north of the Sahara which were not represented, and find out their communication with artists from Arabia, the Levant and beyond. Viewing it in close proximity to the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show was a convenient coincidence, but the wealth of Maghreb art more than matched those lofty standards.

Elmarsa Gallery, Unit 23, Alserkal Avenue, Al-Quoz 1

After Elmarsa, I walked out of the last warehouse into a nondescript gravel car park, and my visit was over. Compared to Dubai’s more well-known (and more central) sights, Alserkal is modest and quiet. Yet the voices it contains needs to be heard. I visited Dubai the week that the new  American president signed an executive order limiting travel to his country from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. It goes beyond saying how short-sighted, narrow-minded, and plain callous that was, and it is hard not to feel pessimistic about how the Arabic world at large will be demonised into super-villainy over the next four years. Cross-cultural communication with the Arabic world is now more vital than ever, and art has a role to play in that. It may be the case that the artists are barred from travelling to their own opening nights (as happened to Thaier Helal in London), but their work has the ability to talk to us when they are silenced.


What cats tell you about Thom Yorke’s soul: A Moon Shaped Pool lyric analysis

Since 2003, Radiohead have found their soul. It seems improbable for a band to spend so long looking for it, but it is only since leaving their former record label EMI that their music has felt comfortable in its own skin rather than a prickly, vicious, beast to be wrestled with every few years. Think about cats: on 2003’s ‘Myxomatosis’ we’re dealing with a shaggy, ‘mongrel’ bastard, with fresh food in its mouth. The natural world on Radiohead’s first six albums is usually described either in relation to death and decay (‘cracked eggs, dead birds’), food (‘frozen food and battery hens’), or as cartoonish, Animal Farm-style satires (‘Gucci little piggy’/‘hammer-headed sharks’/the ‘wolf at the door’). They’re always sketched as part of much bigger systems, rather than having qualities of their own worth exploring. After the EMI period, something changed. There’s still the skeleton of Yorke’s fondness for cliche I’ve written about before, but he’s more happy to talk about felines outside of that conceit of nature as a mechanical, murderous cycle. So in ‘The Eraser’, the addressee is ‘like a kitten with a ball of wool’, on ‘15 Step’ he asks ‘Did the cat get your tongue?’, and on ‘Lotus Flower’, it’s not even you or I any more but a collective, ‘We will shrink and we’ll be quiet as mice/And while the cat is away/Do what we want’. What is there on A Moon Shaped Pool? A straight-up metaphor, the enigmatic ‘crazy kitten smile’ of ‘True Love Waits’.

A few caveats. One can never be too confident assigning dates to Radiohead songs as, by the band’s own admission, they can float around as ideas long before they are committed to tape. ‘True Love Waits’ goes back to before The Bends, but given how much the band sweat over the tracks they include on each album and how they order them, it’s not outlandish to think about their date of publishing, rather than composition. ‘True Love Waits’ hasn’t been included on any studio album previously because it is far too lyrical and personal to fit in with the worldly, angsty subject matter of their back catalogue. In any case, the inclusion of tracks from all points of their history on A Moon Shaped Pool offers some intriguing compare and contrast studies within Yorke’s lyrical progression.

Burn The Witch’ dates from the Kid A period and is vintage turn-of-the-century Yorke, with the song’s lyrics effectively a list of cliches: the title being one, ‘we know where you live’ and ‘avoid all eye contact’ being others. ‘Decks Dark’ carries several echoes of ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, not least the third track position on their respective albums. Still, there are developments. The ‘spaceship’ in the earlier song is definitely just a spaceship. It’s used as a vehicle (pun semi-intended) to offer a vantage point on the Earth, as part of OK Computer era Yorke’s global eye. ‘Decks Dark’ gives us a ‘spacecraft’ instead. The shift from ‘ship’ to ‘craft’ is itself quite revealing; a ‘ship’ is a form of transport, whereas a ‘craft’ could be anything – a satellite, space junk, a machine of war. It is  evocative, yet vague. The juxtaposition of that eerie chorus with much more personal verses (‘It was just a laugh/’it was just a lie’) suggests a metaphor at work. It helps that the song carries the band’s harmonic signature: chords which float ambiguously between major and minor (in this case D). Consequently, you’re never sure where the centre of the song is – an intergalactic battle or something more personal? Do the verses serve the chorus or vice versa? Or both? Radiohead creating an uncertain mood through their choice of chord pattern is not unusual, but to see it working in tandem with lyrics eliding from Big Things to Little Things, is.

As with cats, trains have been a recurrent motif for Yorke. Particularly when you watch Meeting People Is Easy, you understand how they fit in with the band’s aesthetic: vast arteries moving people from place to place in metal cylinders which they have no active control of. Yorke described his inspiration for ‘Backdrifts’ as images of snow through the window of a stranded bullet train in Japan. Furthermore, his solo effort ‘Black Swan’ commands ‘Buy a ticket and get on the train’; an invocation of the classic heads-down, commuting transport system. So when ‘Glass Eyes’ opens with ‘Hey it’s me/I just got off the train’ the whole thing is turned on its head as the train is no longer of central importance: it’s delivering the singer to a person, it’s not anonymous transit any more. Yorke described his lyrical approach in 1997 as ‘taking Polaroids of things happening at high speed’; there is much more stillness to the music and words of A Moon Shaped Pool

A 2008 article in Mojo detailing the pained genesis of In Rainbows offers some clues as to why Yorke’s lyrics became more soulful around that time. The man himself identified the increased time spent with his children as crucial in getting him out of his head space, and ‘switching off’. He also pinpointed something which happened during the creation of his solo album, The Eraser. Working with Nigel Godrich, it became apparent that his voice was what provided the anchor to the song fragments he created, and was what allowed others to enter into the sonic world he had in his head. Subsequently, he garnered a newfound confidence in his voice and didn’t shirk from its ‘feminine’ qualities. The logical pattern follows that as if was more willing to be fluid with his vocal melodies, then his lyrics would be more supple as well.

One of the few faults I have with the lyrics on A Moon Shaped Pool is the overuse of the verb ‘mess’, as in ‘you really messed up everything’/’truth will mess you up’ (Ful Stop) and ‘messing me around’ (Identikit). It works very powerfully as part of that aching R ‘n’ B style chorus in the latter song (does anyone else hear Mario Winans?), but the fact that it has already been used several times in ‘Ful Stop’ means the impact is dulled. It comes across as a bit of a duff Americanism. Still, it allows you to see how it is different from the ‘messing’ done by the Karma Police and the Wolf at Thom Yorke’s door at the close of Hail To The Thief. In those cases the mess-age is a threat: don’t bother trying to fight against a system. On A Moon Shaped Pool the messing is done by ‘truth’ and ‘you’; again, very personal origins. On ‘Ful Stop’, it’s not clear whether that opening ‘You really messed up everything’ is directed by the singer towards himself, or someone else. If you take the first view, then, with respect to the chorus, it offers a more self-excoriating analysis. Yorke uses a chiding, slang sense of the verb ‘mess’ before the chorus returns to that more conventional, systematic, headfuck definition.

Something ‘Identitkit’ has which is very unusual is Thom turning to address a large audience, represented in the music by a choir, with the line ‘Broken hearts/make it rain’. Previously rain has been used by Yorke as a metaphor for apocalypse, with the parallels to Noah’s Ark on the first half of Hail To The Thief, the Canute story on The Eraser, and some sort of Waste Land-style purging on ‘Paranoid Android’. Here it seems like – whisper it – rain equates with tears, provoked as they are by ‘broken hearts’. It might still be apocalyptic, but it’s a personal apocalypse, just as ‘Decks Dark’ has a spacecraft which only the singer can detect. Even here though Yorke maintains a delicious ambiguity: it’s not clear if the line is descriptive, or imperative. In other words, is he describing how broken hearts make it rain, or is he asking them to do so? He’s not going to step out from behind the curtain for us so easily. (There is also the lesser spotted third interpretation: he could be asking the broken hearts to shower strippers in bank notes as they gyrate in the club).

In some respects Thom Yorke’s lyrics haven’t changed that much, because part of Radiohead’s popularity is his ability to write words which straddle the personal and political, and that lingers on A Moon Shaped Pool, with its allusions to ragdolls, spacecraft, and crucially; control. You could apply them to a partner, or to a political structure. If you feel estranged from one or the other – or both – the lyrics will appeal. But on A Moon Shaped Pool there are hallmarks of Thom Yorke’s early career style, resettled in a more personal, organic, emotional home. Maybe Yorke’s historically obsessive self-analysis has been muted, and he trusts the words that he writes more. There’s less of an inclination to summarise the world, and think of language, in terms of systems, and in so doing dismiss introspection as I’ve detailed elsewhere. In its stead is a propensity to explore language and the natural world in a more symbolic way. It’s as if the ‘transport, motorways, and tramlines’ of ‘Let Down’ reach an hour long hush for this album to blossom. The lyrics to ‘Tinker Tailor…’ are some of Yorke’s strongest and are the most apt comparison in this case, as they speak about a hive of activity, but it is amongst the ‘birds’ and the ‘fishes’, with elusive references to insects and wild animals which is all very fluid and a bit…sexy.

Three Soho Shows: Darren Bader, Bridget Smith, Wolf Suschitzky

Darren Bader – such are promises, Sadie Coles, Kingly St

Until 20th February

Sadie Coles describe their man as a ‘mercurial mischief-maker’, a near-cliché which is too often used to disguise artists who can offer up a contradictory one liner, but not much else. The art equivalent of the snarky, punning Twitter commentator who briefly rides the wave of social media approval during a particularly contentious episode of Question Time.

Darren Bader is not that; his shows in London and New York have tampered with expectations of curation and the meaning of art. But this current run feels quite flat. Any mischief Bader makes lacks punch and instead comes off as waspish and irritating. There is a hodge-podge og Golden Age Hollywood era photographs, books lying on the floor, subwoofers pumping out noise, and even an imitation of an Ed Ruscha print. The trouble with mixing together so much media, most of it reclaimed by Bader, means that any individual piece which would otherwise stand out is burdened by doubt. If the show has a broader point about the nature of exhibiting, then its individual parts are cannon fodder for satire. So when he assembles a gushing tap from pennies or a rotating board with the slogan (N)E(U)ROTIC, the initial charm is dampened by the distrust wedged between artist and viewer. such are promises has attracted attention for its interactive centrepieces: a chessboard and a boules arena. I wasn’t there for the start of either game, but I was pretty close and the turnout appeared to be very low, suggesting that I’m not the only one concerned that the show is to a large degree a joke at the viewer’s expense. For an interactive show it feels quite exclusive. But then again I would say that if I didn’t really understand.

It’s not always the case, but having a show which inherently critiques the collecting impulse is able to loosen its discipline and lack coherence. This is not to say that all art has to be subject to a message, but the litmus test of whether your view of, and interaction with, the world changes after looking at the art is not passed here, unless you count the mental seasickness from having been tossed around incoherent pieces. He has shown a firecracker wit in the past, manipulating donation bins to read either ‘All donations will go to something’ and ‘All donations will go to nothing’, and he has shown prowess with word play in ‘Heaven And Earth’ where he provided JPEGs with hilariously associated pairs of items; ‘anus and/with greyness’ being a particular favourite of mine as it depicts a colour card put inside someone’s bum. Such wit was the redemption in the retrospective for Christopher Williams, one of Bader’s influences, in the Whitechapel Gallery last year, but this show feels lukewarm on the whole.

Sadie Coles, 62 Kingly Street, London, W1B 5QN

Bridget Smith – The Eye Needs A Horizon, Frith Street Gallery, Golden Square

Until 3rd March

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Bridget Smith, Blueprint For A Sea (Rising), 2015, cyanotype print on aluminium, 108.5 x 230 x 4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Galleries. Photo: Stephen White.

A delight. We’d all like to spend more time perusing around art galleries, but it’s difficult to do when you’re thinking about that email you need to send and it’s 30 degrees inside and you’re wearing too many layers and your feet hurt. With that in mind, I can’t think of a show which rewards with so much from so little as Bridget Smith’s current installation at the Frith Street Gallery. Comprised of just four cyanotypes (a photographic print which provides copies easily and cheaply – its use in copying drawings is where we get the term ‘blueprint’) and a video, there is much to meditate on in its deconstruction of cinema. Turning the focus away from the screen onto the apparatus needed to facilitate its viewing, Smith’s prints are photographs of seats and curtains arranged in a symmetrical monotone which evokes Minimalist forms or, as the name of the show suggests, the rhythms of the sea.

The video shows a projector’s beam, concentrating on the balletic movement of dust which it illuminates. The effect is cosmic, as if the beam has captured a galaxy. On one level the work tells you that is what cinema achieves; it creates new universes using its own visual language. But Smith’s work enters greatness as this grace and gravitas afforded to cinematic materials – assisted by the subtle installation of sun-like hanging lights in the gallery – redraws exterior, natural landscape with designed materials of an interior.

Smith’s book Society consists of photographs taken of community centres, spaces which clubs call their home, but the pictures are devoid of people. This came as a break from her 2000 exhibition Mirage which depicted Las Vegas’ constant reconstruction of fantastical, facile environments in a desperate attempt to keep entertaining, to keep the show running. The Eye Needs A Horizon in turn resurrects a model from even earlier in her career, the Odeon series which shot cinema seats and curtains together in striking, colourful compositions. Throughout all her projects Smith depicts the psychology of space brilliantly, and this might be her most elegant yet. A room is never quite just a room with Smith, but a snapshot of a liminal space, caught between what it is physically made of and the intangibility of what its occupants invest into it.

Frith Street Gallery, 17-18 Golden Square, London, W1F 9JJ

Wolf Suschitzky –  Wolf Suschitzky’s London, Photographers’ Gallery

Until 6th March

Saul Leiter’s pioneering use of colour is currently stealing the headlines at the Photographers’ Gallery, a canny reappraisal of street photography beyond the black and white documentary stereotype. Yet hidden in the gallery’s bottom floor is another sideways take on the form, specific to London; the photoraphs of Wolf Suschitzky.

Taken before, during, and after the Second World War, Suschitzky manages to preserve the immigrant’s eye for detail in England whilst also demonstrating the cosmopolitanism it shared with its European neighbours; a photograph of a dancer at Hampstead Heath fair could have stepped off the Berlin cabaret. In showing off Suschitzky’s work the Photographer’s Gallery are, via his allusions to intriguing conversations and gratuitous use of neon signage, chipping away at the cosy, Keep Calm And Bake Off memory of the 1940s which has been knitted into our brains in recent years. Far from being staid, Suschitzky’s London is full of Cartier-Bresson style dynamism, with fountains spurting, children playing, and pigeons cavorting.

The fogs of London are now diffusing from living memory, turning them into the subject of treatment in historical non-fiction work like Christine Corton’s London Fog: A Biography. My favourite piece in the exhibition depicts bowler-hatted Londoners staring at some visage on the Thames, which has been cropped out.

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Wolfgang Suschitzky, Westminster Bridge, London, c1930s, (c) Wolfgang Suschitzky. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Westminster Bridge becomes an abstracted platform, disconnected from any apparent landmass.  The vantage point of the Londoners over the mist recalls the quintessential Romantic painting Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, but their somewhat startled scrutiny adds a lightness of touch to the picture, as if they were greeting an old friend in a new coat. The vocabulary of rolling, dirty clouds punctuated by illuminated adverts and signs could easily be an awkward imitation of Manhattan, but Suschitzky keeps a humour to it all. His photographs of war or poverty ravaged parts of the city are likewise lifted from clinical documentary with warmth.

Suschitzky later worked as a cinematographer on films such as Get Carter, and his ability to construct a narrative with composed images and scenes is palpable. The spread of his photographs downstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery is like a storyboard for parallel visions of London that didn’t germinate. A testament to the power of cinema which Bridget Smith also harbours.

Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London, W1F 7LW

Luc Tuymans – Intolerance, exhibition at ALRIWAQ, Doha

Qatar is a country which rarely looks back, preferring to enjoy the prospect of its future. A combination of a traditionally peripatetic Bedouin population and restarts of infrastructure mean that little of the past is actually visible in its capital Doha. The Sheraton hotel, one of the first towers built in the city, looks like an alien ziggurat from another epoch but was only built in 1979. It seems an odd venue then, to host Luc Tuymans, a Belgian artist whose preoccupation is history and its remembrance.

In 2009 Tuymans toured with an exhibition entitled Against The Day, a name shared with a novel by Thomas Pynchon published three years earlier. That doff-capping is a hint to the deeper thematic considerations they share with evaluating the past, though Tuymans’ brushstrokes are often banal and indistinct, in contrast to the searing maximalism of Pynchon’s prose. Consider their diverging responses to 9/11. In 2014 Pynchon released Bleeding Edge, resplendent with typically colourful allusions to conspiracy theories, paranoia and allusions to the deadwood of early millennium popular culture, cf. the ‘Rachel’ haircut. Tuymans got into trouble for his responses to 9/11, a time of gratuitous soul-searching and hand-wringing across the arts, as he made conceptual meta-responses to the event. Firstly there was an enormous, banal still life he exhibited at the Documenta in 2002. Tuymans’ painting called into question the very capabilities of the art form, particularly when accessing the event in emotionally raw short-term memory.  And then a year later he painted one of his masterpieces, Mayhem, which features in this exhibition. Mayhem almost looks like a still life, with barrels and tyre piles dotted across the canvas, but the ramps towards the left of the picture seem reminiscent of the skeleton of a plane: its fuselage, and wings outspread. The turning point of this century is not presented with gravitas, but via a dance of suggestion. Its panoramic perspective also puts me in mind of a famous painting by a Low Countries cousin of Tuymans’; Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Whereas that triptych is read as a narrative with a code to decipher, Tuymans suspends a moment in time and leaves these fundamental outlines – an aeroplane, a cross, a prone man with a gun – ready to be ‘coloured in’ by those who choose how history is remembered.

Indeed, Tuymans’ technique shares qualities between the act of applying paint to canvas and the act of remembering. His paintings have a washed out, watercolour-like quality and favour dull sheen rather than particular detail. He presents images from the worst of (in)humanity, Nazism and Belgian imperialism, but with a deadpan functionality which raises the question of whether those acts anything remarkable to them at all – whether what we might call ‘evil’ is in fact a species norm. He experimented with film-making for a period in the 1980s, and the skills he picked up from that are obvious: he is one of the best painters at cropping, of framing the subject (particularly faces) in a confrontational close-up. Commissioned especially for this exhibition, The Arena I-VI tries to integrate the inherent advantage cinema possesses over painting: the ability to view the same scene from multiple angles. The details of what are painted in that cycle are indistinct, but there is a feeling of aggression and ritual, perhaps a similar depiction of mood from the uprisings and displacement this decade in the Middle East and Africa as he initially did with 9/11 in Mayhem. Tuymans’ art is amoral, it shows humanity for what it is. If we murder and mutilate each other, then that is what we are. Art does not dig us out of the killing fields but shows us how deep the holes go.

One of the delights in his recent output is a series shown off in the exhibition Corporate in 2010, some of which are displayed here. These are thoughtful and hilarious pieces, which alternate between ribbing at the omnipresent tedium of corporate culture a la The Stanley Parable, and aggressively lit, overexposed pieces which recall Francis Bacon’s infernal popes. There have been many attempts to critique such a concept not just in art, but in all fields, and yet few of them make such an impression as these. Given that many of Tuymans’ paintings are of the seemingly innocuous bureaucrats who facilitated the worst convulsions of the 20th century, this is unsurprising.

Not even domestic four walls hold safety in Tuymans’ hands. His interiors have a quiet Hopperesque terror to them which arises from perspectives askew, where walls appear more suddenly than you realise and Tuymans’ cropping places objects in such a way that you feel things are being concealed from your view. The artist has described how ‘most of my imagery has the quality of the silence before the storm’, and his interiors are the best example of that. That washed out, filtered quality means that his paintings are different from most works in that they are a reconstruction, rather than a construction. The paintings have committed themselves to a memorial interpretation before the viewer has the privilege to do so. Some paintings ripple off the canvas, because of a vibrant use of colour or because of dynamic impasto. But Tuymans’ appear to recede even further into the wall, as if concealed behind a layer of atmospheric dust.

For all that is worth praising in the significant collection Qatar has acquired for this exhibition, it is a failure. Doha has imported the materials necessary for a great show but despite the curatorial assistance of Lynne Cooke it is disappointing because there is no organisation to it at all – rooms seem to be arranged with random times and styles. For an artist as wide-ranging as Tuymans, this isn’t good enough. Moreover, while it is my personal preference to have text accompanying each painting in the gallery rather than a handful in a leaflet, the exhibition has very little information on the artist, his upbringing, his education, his collaborations, his nationality – quite something given how much a role knowledge of the past has in his work, given how much a simple prod can reveal a painting depicting something bland to be dripping in historical connotations – a prod I fear unenlightened spectators don’t receive. At the back of the gallery there is an impressive collection of preliminary sketches, but there is no elaboration on how these are worked up into the final pieces, or how the artist’s compositional process can be understood. While in Doha I also visited the wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, a delicately arranged selection of artifacts which presents Islamic art in all its differing styles, from Moorish Spain to Persia. That museum, without patronisation, holds your hand through surprises within what we might think familiar, and is a real asset to the growing city in promoting its native culture. ALRIWAQ on the other hand, seems happy to pay for the work and then sit on its walls. One of the few tidbits the leaflet does provide is to describe Tuymans as one of the most important figures in the revival of figurative painting, but that has no bearing on what is actually displayed. The architecture and design of the gallery is fine, and is impressively decorated on the outside according to who is exhibited within. Unfortunately, the staff seem entirely distant from the artwork.

The show is billed as a ‘retrospective’, but gives no account of Tuymans’ development. If anything, this exhibition is proof of how much a coherent narrative and careful hand is needed in curating, rather than just letting the paintings sit there. There are so many possibilities with Tuymans – for using contextual materials, for making you question your perception of media images, but the experience just felt lacking, either due to a lack of knowledge or interest from the people behind it. I’m hoping that this experience was just a one-off, and having done some research Sheikh Hassan has been an absolute pioneer at the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art in promoting works which have lacked a traditional audience in the Middle East. Admittedly while in the past Tuymans has said ‘for a show in a gallery, there must be a mental vacuum space where the show is conceptualized’, suggesting that he prefers a minimal approach, this show is simply too big, too haphazard, and too confusing for any viewer to conceptualize on their own.

ALRIWAQ, Al Corniche St, Doha, Qatar.


Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, exhibition at Howard Griffin Gallery, Shoreditch.


Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, 2015, installation view.

NB: This exhibition is now closed.

My parents moved house when I was four years old. My memory of the house I was born in is scarce to the point that I have no recollection of living there, but by a curious quirk of the brain I can remember vividly dreams that I had there. In one of them, I was scared to the point of running into my parents’ room after being assaulted by geometric shapes that crawled out of the walls like that bit with the moving letters in Sesame Street. Maybe it’s a moment of fancy, but that experience has always left me with a heightened affinity with the work of Surrealists, particularly those who interpose otherwise banal scenes with monolithic geometric shapes, with no commentary on their presence; they simply exist silently, unquestioned, with enormous symbolic weight. A great example is Paul Nash’s Equivalents for the Megaliths, which refuses to become an idyllic landscape painting as it reduces nature to its most simple constituent blocks. Resting squatly in the middle of the canvas, the shapes are not part of a narrative construction; they just are.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s paintings occupy the same territory as Nash’s banal fantasy, and are complemented very well by the dark, cavernous space created inside Shoreditch’s Howard Griffin Gallery. Ghadyanloo makes frequent hat-tips to the Surrealist school, but always on his own terms.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo - Logic of Metaphysics. 2015, 200x118cm, acrylic on canvas.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Logic of Metaphysics. 2015, 200x118cm, acrylic on canvas.

Logic of Metaphysics recalls Max Ernst’s Murdering Airplane but the 1920s vision of the aircraft as a turbulent instrument of destruction has been replaced by the eerily silent, almost still hover of an aluminium tube, a sawn-off shotgun in Ghadyanloo’s rendering that rains down death indiscriminately. The bright and minimal environments of his work are descended from De Chirico, whose subtle paintings with all their implications of dread are a welcome contrast to the impulse to excessiveness found in Dali.

The ubiquity of the bowler hat in the paintings of Rene Magritte finds a companion here in Ghadyanloo’s soldier hovering over the stairs in Imitation of Respect. Ghadyanloo lacks the Freudian overtones of his Surrealist forebears, but this is maybe the closest example as the toy-sized soldier is dwarfed by the staircase leading up to a narrow passageway which resembles a vagina, the kind of overwhelming female force with recurs in Magritte and Dali alike. A recurrent image is the cube. It hangs above the heads of children like the sword of Damocles, a testament to inexplicable danger that seems to be overcome in Destiny Riders, but the presence of birds of prey adds another layer of intangible terror and paranoia. The juxtaposition of innocence and danger in his portrayal of children shows a rare blending of political statement with recognition of some of the more universally contradictory feelings held in childhood.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo - Perception, 2015, installation view. Imitation of Respect is in the centre, Imitation of Sin on the right.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, 2015, installation view. Imitation of Respect is in the centre, Imitation of Sin on the right.

His brushwork is breathtakingly effective in its simplicity; the varying reactions of the group on the stairs in Imitation of Sin can be discerned merely from the positioning of their arms, as a friend of mine pointed out – a closed-off fold here, a more open hands-on-hips pose there.

The exhibition shows off Ghadyanloo’s range of skills with different materials, as little resin sculptures are contained within little niches that, in conjunction with the stairs at the end of the gallery, transfigure it into a church-like space. The three dimensional quality of these works allows the feeling of suspended time to be stressed more than is possible on canvas. The exhibition describes Ghadyanloo’s murals – for which he is best known in Tehran, as they pepper the city’s buildings with tromp l’oeil wit – as a ‘shared public space for dreaming’. A deeply profound concept, and one which brings me back to the anecdote which kicked off this review. Ghadyanloo’s murals create a collective imaginative experience. Not to mention that living in a city is like living in a dream, particularly if, as in my case, your previous experience has been with much smaller places. Weird and wonderful tableaux pass by you. Decontextualised snippets of text and conversation float by you. While the city offers the promise of escaping into a large crowd, what stands out is your inability to do that – the number of people you walk past means that, through brutal probability, chances are you’ll bump into someone you already know, and probably wished to forget. The way in which people from your own past can be all gathered in a single location has always put me in mind of the arbitrary groups of people fused together in a dream. As William Wordsworth puts it in ‘Residence in London’, book VII of The Prelude:

     …the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams…

The exhibition may now be closed, but Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s profile should be raised by his residency in East London, and will hopefully return soon. An artist tipping his hat to tradition while concentrating on present-day political issues. Howard Griffin did a marvellous job at converting the gallery space to complement the artist’s work, and are well worth a visit in their own right.

Howard Griffin Gallery, 189 Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6HU. Nearest Tube: Shoreditch High Street.

Ryan Hewett – Untitled, exhibition at The Unit London


“And so I am: then crushing penury

Persuades me I was better when a king;

Then am I king’d again: and by and by

Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,

And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,

Nor I nor any man that but man is

With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased

With being nothing.” – Richard II, William Shakespeare – Richard II.

 ‘Unking’ is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable neologisms, strikingly direct in the midst of a winding monologue by the title character at the end of Richard II. The idea of leaving an art show untitled is a common enough trope to make one roll one’s eyes, but in Ryan Hewett’s new exhibition at The Unit London, the elusive name is a cunning move, when thought about as antonymic to what is ‘titled’ – his bold, impasto portraits of notable figures removes their constructed iconographies; they untitle them.

 In the course of writing this review and opening up my word processor, my attention was brought to another definition of untitled, one which is rapidly becoming the default one; the untitled computer file. To be untitled in the digital age is to be synonymous with being unfinished. Fitting then, it should dub an exhibition where the paintings are completed by the viewer. The individual pieces are only known by their initials, so there is a guessing game to take part in, but also the nature of the colourful, abstract pieces means you’re not so much presented with a face but one emerges according to how you are prepared to see it. Faces are not presented, rather, they bloom from collisions of colour. The picture of Jesus is the best bridge for this, what with the history of seeing pictures of Christ in random shapes (Perhaps Unit London could look into loaning it to the newest Turin Shroud display). More recently, iconography has been de rigueur since Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ portrait of Barack Obama in 2008, and this makes the show as relevant as it could have ever been. Hewett manages to maintain an admirable distance from essentialising his subjects; the blotches of colour smeared across the canvas could easily be made by the defacer rather than the portraitist (many of the paintings are built from oil and spray). It gives the artist freedom from putting his entire weight behind simple criticism of approval of the person portrayed.

'J.C', Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 130x120cm.

‘J.C’, Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 130x120cm.

Hewett’s style combines the aggressive, thickly applied technique running through Bacon, Freud and Auerbach with traces of abstract expressionism. Using the latter’s example of subconsciously inferred patterns ties with the artist’s expressed intent, which is to avoid ‘instant commentaries’ on notable figures, in favour of more ‘reflection’ to the (often random and unpredictable) effects that they cause on wider society, not allowing obsession with image and personality to dictate our interpretation and interaction with the world.  Using a less bounded palette of colours and shapes gives the impression of collision, of the portrait not standing statically but being impacted upon the canvas, showing the diaspora of consequences that the subjects’ existence and their actions brings forth. The exhibition groups heroes with villains, black with white (particularly important given the artist’s native country’s history with race – after all, what is a ‘natural’ skin tone?), something assisted by Unit London’s clever use of space. The gallery building is a gutted former Adidas shop, meaning that old cupboards and fitting rooms have been appropriated as little discovery spaces which offer a more private glimpse of a piece, and help break up the often routine circuit of going around an exhibition. There are some visual gags to enjoy as well; Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin keep each other company on the stairs, each providing inspiration for fanatical worship in their native land, and fanatical hatred in the other’s.

'B.H.O', Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 92 x 85cm.

‘B.H.O’, Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 92 x 85cm.

 All in all, an exhibition worth visiting and an upcoming gallery to keep an eye on. Since their Modern Portraiture show last year, The Unit London have made a name for themselves in that field, shaking up a form which is still sometimes considered to be quite stale.  To sell out the paintings weeks in advance is no mean feat. What’s more, their effusive embrace of social media, paired with the genial atmosphere of the opening night, suggests a bright future ahead. I await what they have planned for the rest of 2015 with great anticipation.

The Unit London, 9 Earlham Street, London, WC2H 9LL. Nearest Tube: Covent GardenExhibition runs until 24th May.

Four London exhibitions reviewed: Astrophotography, Christian Marclay, Joseph Kosuth, Mary Ramsden

Astronomy Photographer of the Year @ Greenwich Observatory

Until 19th July

At The Feet Of Orion (C) Marco Lorenzi

‘At The Feet Of Orion’ (C) Marco Lorenzi, courtesy of Greenwich Observatory

Admission is normally paid at the Greenwich Observatory, though entrance to this exhibition is free. It’s a constant surprise to me just how much context can perception of visual art. The photographs on here are art, just as the wonderful recent exhibitions in the Science Museum were. Yet there is still an odd voice in your head which tells you that if it is in an educationally inclined museum, it is only a piece of documentary, and does not have the contemplativeness or multiplicity of art in a gallery. Granted, the presentation space is often limited (the photographs here are disappointingly small) but the field of astrophotography has common links with the conventional aesthetic world that we should not ignore. Astrophotography has a long and proud history, but it was a combination of the Cold War thawing (giving a new scope to space exploration, driven forward by Carl Sagan, outside of superpower competition) and the development of high-quality images, especially from the Hubble Space Telescope, which allowed it to become what it is today.

Possibly the most photogenic space object is the Horsehead Nebula, and it is rendered here stunningly by Bill Snyder. As the accompanying text suggests, it is a more distanced view of the nebula than we would expect, more willing to accommodate the cosmic dust which surrounds it. The revisitings of the nebula by astrophotographers puts me in mind of animal photography of the 18th century where animals were painted somewhat obsessively (Waldemar Janusczak mentioned in his documentary on Rococo that Clara the rhino was the most painted model of the 18th century), in particular horses. The most commanding painting of a horse to be found in London is George Stubbs’ painting Whistlejacket, which looms large even through several sets of doors in the National Gallery. The focus on the horse and its anatomy – rather than its (royal) rider – upsets the hierarchy of genres and thus Stubbs in the 18th century and Snyder in the 21st are connected by a willingness to see past the obvious iconography and accommodate peripheral or traditionally neglected elements of composition.

Sat at the top of that hierarchy was history painting, and I’ve often thought that the Hubble Deep Field image is like a modern corollary for the epic canvases of history paintings like The Surrender At Breda,The Ratification Of The Treaty Of Munster, or anything by David. We can’t look at our leaders in the way that those paintings suggest, so we choose different ones, putting together galaxies rather than kings, part of the Saganian endeavour to use our trivial position in space as a binding agent for humanity.

The famous 'Pale Blue Dot' image, captured by Voyager 2 in 1990. (C) NASA

The famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, captured by Voyager 2 in 1990. (C) NASA

Exploration no longer has to be about colonisation, and by extension, militarism. The galaxies of the deep field hold the same power over us that mythical figures and semi-mythical leaders do in history painting, making us tremble and marvel at their sublime size and distance from us, while appreciating the harmony of their construction.

I should also give a mention especially to the ‘Young Astronomy Photographer’ category, as the wealth of talent on show from such young people is really quite something. My favourite photograph from that selection was not the overall winner but one called ‘Moon Behind The Trees’ by the 12 year old (!) Emily Jeremy.

Moon Behind The Trees (C) Emily Jeremy

‘Moon Behind The Trees’ (C) Emily Jeremy, courtesy of Greenwich Observatory

Understated but alluring, it’s a more humble effort than some of the panoramas on show but stands out for that very reason. A little shiny penny in a room full of silver.

Christian Marclay @ White Cube Bermondsey

Until 12th April

Christian Marclay: master of all trades, jack of none. Painting, sound art, video art are all on display in his current exhibition at the White Cube in Bermondsey. I don’t think I’ve ever left a gallery with such a big smile on my face as I did after this one. It’s split into three sections, with the first one you hear being Pub Crawl, a video installation consisting of the artist approaching detrital bottles and cans on a weekend morning and coaxing a rhythm out of them which, when multiplied tenfold, creates a unique array of different soundscapes as the videos run over each other. It’s cheeky, as are the other elements of this exhibition. The set of paintings on display build a surprisingly simple bridge between Roy Liechtenstein’s brand of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, so much so that you wonder why no-one has done it in this way before, though there is a debt to Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha’s combination of Pop Art with typography. An intriguing attempt to describe sound using purely visual stimuli, which is also the impression given by the final part of the exhibition, Surround Sounds. Surround Sounds consists of a video projection, approximately 20 minutes long, which occurs continuously over four walls of a darkened room. The walls are filled with onomatopoeia from comic books which act out what they indicate, e.g. ‘beeps’ and ‘boops’ flit across the walls quicker than you can follow them, ‘cracks’ tear asunder and reveal new ones before dismantling the entire wall, and ‘tics’ methodically progress around the room.

It’s a great space to simply be in, and if they can stomach the at-times intensive lights and choreography, then children will have a blast. There is something quite ghoulish about being surrounded on all sides though. Simply being in a 360 degree space puts you in mind of the postmodern philosophers like McLuhan, Baudrilliard and Jameson who discuss the ubiquity of the screen and how media impacts our perception of the world (if you do bring your children, probably don’t try and tell them this). Stepping into the room provides you with that latent dread of things happening around you that you can’t notice, which is a side effect of globalisation – of not realising how butterfly effects lead into catastrophic world-changing ones, as can be seen in the Middle East today. Added onto that, Marclay’s masterful employment of the After Effects software makes the onomatopoeia super-powerful, begging the question of how much reported events are caricatured like a comic strip, with triumphant ‘biffs’ and ‘boshes’ ringing out across the world.

PS: After some thought I realised there IS a precedent for what Marclay is doing in the gaming world – the criminally underrated 2003 FPS XIII is rendered in a cel-shaded style

XIII. Still mad fun to play.

XIII. Still mad fun to play.

which goes as far as providing the classic comic book sound effects at certain points. It works surprisingly well, given that they were originally used in comic books as a necessity given the staticness of the form.

Joseph Kosuth: Amnesia @ Spruth Magers

Exhibition now closed because I took too long to write this fucking review

While I left the White Cube grinning from ear to ear, my reaction to Joseph Kosuth’s exhibition at the Spruth Magers gallery was colder, despite the radiating neon lights around the gallery. Don’t get me wrong – I like some of Kosuth’s work. One And Three Chairs is one of the most important pieces of the last 100 years. But overall this is an exhibition that seems more concerned with importance than anything else. The text advertises the artist’s engagement with highfalutin ideas from Wittgenstein and others but there is no gateway, nothing to draw you out of your regular perception and into the artist’s vision. Without that, it comes off as a purely academic exercise. Kosuth’s contemporaries Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner have, in recent exhibitions, demonstrated how the tactic of pulling language out of context can have an emotive tug, but it is absent here. The ludic element to the display means that you’re scanning for something that isn’t really there – the art is supposed to be inferred from the elements’ relationship to one another, which never really happens. Kosuth appears to be trying to construct his art backwards, by creating works which fit themselves into a philosophical paradigm, but there is no organic growth from individual response, meaning it appears essayistic. In conjunction with that, Kosuth (inspired by a broad pessimism about language and statement-making) is constantly undercutting himself, as any position he seems to offer is quickly withdrawn and placed under another meta-position. It’s a persistent withdrawal, offering a statement and then thinking that a statement upon that statement is the real objective – a process which comes to no logical end. I also didn’t get any impression that neon was an essential medium for it – there was very little in the way of interaction with ‘public writing’ as promised, which Ruscha and Weiner carry off so well.

Mary Ramsden: Swipe @ Pilar Corrias Gallery

Until 28th February

Mary Ramsden, 2015, 'Lick 3'.

Mary Ramsden, ‘Lick 3’, 2014, Oil on board, 76 x 61 x 3.5 cm © the artist. Courtesy Pilar Corrias, London

Some concepts make you smile simply by reading about them, and Mary Ramsden’s choice of composition, of using smudges to represent the biological and digital smears we leave in our wake, made me want to experience it immediately. As well as that there are some pieces where the bulk of the canvas is blocked out, but these works pale in comparison to the powerful specimens at the Adventures of the Black Square exhibition in Whitechapel gallery – I did not get a sense of presence with Ramsden’s blocks, whether censorial or otherwise. The main ‘swipe’ pieces on the other hand are quite something, particularly with pieces like Lurid and Cute which create quite impressive accidental Expressionist volumes. The theme at heart of linking thumb swiping with the ‘impression’ left in a digital space – both in terms of handing over private information and digital personae – is incredibly zeitgeist and I hope Ramsden pursues it in more detail. In fact this exhibition fell slightly short of greatness for me, because I felt there was room to explore that dichotomy of the clean screen which hides all kind of fecal bacteria and nasty stuff you carry on your fingers alongside the ‘clean’, high brightness image of ourselves we use social media to project. Still, Ramsden is an emerging artist and I look forward to seeing what she produces in the future.