Article 2014 The Year in Review

Art review of the year - a digest of 2014

A collection of short reviews, one for each month of 2014

January: Saber, The Ugly American at Lazarides, London

Few graffiti artists make the transition from the street to the gallery as deftly as Californian-born Saber. His awareness of the tension between these two realms seems to pay dividends though, as he adroitly manoeuvres something of a middle path in The Ugly American. The exhibition has the free-flowing flair and gestural abandon of graffiti art, but its aesthetically at ease in the gallery setting. The exhibition is replete with works depicting the American and British flags. These geometrically-precise renditions are overlaid with sweeping free strokes typical of ‘tagging’, yet no letters are fully depicted. Instead, the can strokes seem to carry on beyond the edge of the frames; perhaps letters were formed in these unseen places but it’s impossible to tell.

Beyond the seemingly-obvious act of putting two fingers up to authority by dubbing over these symbols of power, there’s an altogether more nuanced point to be made. The wooden boxes which act as canvasses for these pieces are chipped, scruffy, perhaps intentionally defaced. The blemishes seem to represent the peeking out of unsightly things – like dissident subcultures – from beneath the tired facade of authority. Elsewhere, the exhibition fuses graffiti sensibilities with a more abstract aesthetic form which makes for some highly original works. Again, little windows poke through a veneer, this time one of cool chrome which seems to be covering up a world of glorious colour behind it. Whilst maintaining an air of sedition, The Ugly American has a rare quality for a street art/graffiti exhibition: subtlety.

February: Various Artists, Open Wall at Facade, London

Set across two floors of a disused bank in the heart of the City of London’s financial district, Open Wall presents a dazzling array of artistic talent from more than 30 exhibitors. The fact that London’s street art scene is so well represented seemed a conscious and interesting choice by curator Blair Zaye. Webbo’s Blood Lust took his characteristic material, namely tabletop figurines, and applied them to an otherwise nude, white female mannequin. The decimated diminutive body parts and weapons, all tied together in a sea of blood red form the underwear, whilst a tank rides atop the right cup of the bra. The powerful conflation of sex and violence is a potent satire of contemporary culture.

Elsewhere AR’s distinctive manga-inspired characters make a welcome appearance, whilst Lizy Bending’s kaleidoscopic mash-up photographic prints are hypnotic. Marian Medina-Cuesta’s haunting pencil drawings provide a nice balance to lurid colours on display in the rest of the exhibition. They depict bizarre semi-organic formations which blend a machine-like aesthetic with almost Mayan symbolism; it’s the ancient meets a dystopian future.

Whilst it was satisfying to see elements of subversiveness infiltrate the belly of the financial beast, an even more openly confrontational set of work which really responded to the setting would have been welcome.

As it was, Kin’s Access Denied series of three paintings perhaps reflect the space best. They each depict a long-term derelict building in London which appear to be melting away like ghostly spectres. Strikingly, they are painted on found cardboard invoking homelessness and urban decay which juxtaposes markedly with the almost absurd grandeur of the depicted buildings. Despite their grandiose exterior, the buildings, much like homeless people, are forgotten by society. The artist has incorporated lighting controlled by conductive ink so that participants can reanimate these slumbering giants by applying their hands to corresponding areas. It seems to reference society’s latent power to make disused spaces productive again. Fitting, given the setting.

March: Jan Manski, POSSESIA at Breese Little, London

POSSESIA is a deeply unsettling exploration of the darkest recesses of the human psyche. It takes the form of a nightmarish menagerie of anachronistic images and figures from periods of history that probably never really existed. That said, there’s a distinct air of the austere Victorian era, with all its connotations of repressed feelings and terrible prejudices. The exhibition is literally littered with the macabre medical ephemera of an indistinct age. Calipers and other measuring implements accompany photographs, invoking the bad science behind such abominations as eugenics.

Horseman VII is a terrifying caged beast, a two headed creature with a human torso somehow melded to an antique wheelchair. As imposing and horrific as it is, you can’t help but feel a weird sort of remorse for this Frankenstein creation. Elsewhere, there’s human-machine hybrids of a sort of twisted steampunk aesthetic. The exhibition is like uncovering the secret lab of a long-dead mad scientist. But in POSSESIA what it seems what we’re really uncovering is the dark side of human behaviour. The exhibition then, is like a relic from an imagined past that reminds us that for all our development, and our post-modern superiority complex, we’re still governed by fear and prejudice.

April: Nessie Stonebridge, British Birds at Carslaw St*Lukes, London

Nessie Stonebridge’s gestural avian creations are beguiling in lush greens and blues, dare I say it, they’re beautiful. British Birds appears to be a comment on female representations, using a play on the derogatory slang for women, ‘bird’. Hence my trepidation at focussing on the beauty of the paintings. Just like women more generally, reducing these works to their level of beauty alone is fundamentally wrong; there is more than just a pleasing aesthetic behind the paintings. They are imbued with a latent power that seems at any moment could be unleashed, and once again I’m wary of drawing a parallel to nature given the age-old association with feminine/nature. But Stonebridge’s work avoids any simplistic one-dimensional representations; the birds depicted are not unitary but unique. Yes they have a shared form, but some are imposing and commanding, while others look fragile and vulnerable.

Stonebridge treads a wafer thin line between abstract and representational imagery, giving the pieces an indeterminate quality; they seem in a state of flux and have a tangible sense of movement. The canvasses are often embellished with concertinaed fabric and strips of wood. They simultaneously evoke a Japanese war fan and a Geisha’s favourite accessory, which speaks to both violence and desire. Above all, the paintings seem to express a unbridled sense of freedom, perhaps an acknowledgement of shared experience and adversity without resorting to any harmful universalising appeals to an innate femininity – often a pitfall for feminism. Stonebridge passes the test, quite literally, with flying colours.

May: Zimoun, Sound in Motion, University of Brighton Gallery, Brighton

Sound in Motion is just one small part of Brighton Festival’s impressive month-long programme which engrosses the whole city. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. And it doesn’t get much more rudimentary than Swiss-born Zimoun’s installations, such as a ping pong ball attached to a motor that thuds against a cardboard box. Extrapolate this out in number and scale until you have nearly 75 of these covering an entire wall – each sticking out a slightly different amount so as to give a subtly different acoustic – and you have one of Zimoun’s installations. The rhythm created is mesmeric, having a soporific effect as the singular emollient sounds combine to make a more cacophonous symphony. The aural pattern created is seemingly random yet delivers a pleasing harmony.

In the next room, a similar set up, this time long metal cables whip the wall, again each powered by a simple motor. The auditory and visual effect is, however, completely different. This piece has an altogether more high-pitched tone, reminiscent of a swarm of insects. In this sense it is quite unsettling. Both pieces are characterised by haphazard noises which seem to coalesce into a wider, more coherent scheme, like the manifestation of a hive mind of bees or ants. Does anything better embody the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of nature? Zimoun’s work takes humble objects and adds nothing but the most basic motion and yet it transforms spaces by creating an aural landscape which responds to the architecture that houses it.

June: Various Artists, Home at Bermondsey Project Space, London

The relationship between art and social change can be something of a trite and hackneyed affair rather than a harmonious marriage – if not executed probably, that is. Home, put together by homeless charity Crisis is, however, both brilliant and deeply moving. It brings together art by esteemed luminaries such as Turner Prize-nominated George Shaw and exhibits it alongside work produced by service users of Crisis. At the end of the show’s run, the works are auctioned off to raise funds for future projects, allowing Crisis to continue its work with some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. But this is more than a heart-warming charity showcase. This is a coherent exhibition which weaves together different threads each addressing the theme of Home in a unique way, making for a striking whole.

Shaw’s End Terrace communicates the mixed feelings associated with home and hometowns, depicting the artist’s childhood dwelling. There’s a strange mix of heart-warming nostalgia and an engulfing bleakness which speaks to the working class experience. Mark Wallinger’s No Way Home depicts one of those labyrinthine puzzles that adorns the back of cereal packets. The ‘x’ is positioned outside the maze so as to make it’s solution impossible. It’s simple, yet effective. Alongside such well-known artists, Lee Hoyland’s British Born Gutter Raised only stands out for the right reasons. His frenzied paint strokes and use of skulls evokes the ‘primitive’ art of Basquiat. It depicts a melting Union Jack, no doubt reflecting the difficult hand British life has dealt the artist. There’s dozens of excellent pieces in this exhibition – too many to mention – but Ben O’Connor and Garry Lemon’s film featuring interviews with some of the exhibited artists is particularly poignant, and acts like a glue to bring it all together. Art can be good and do good at the same time. Scratch that. This is better than good. It’s excellent.

July: Adriano Costa, Samara Scott, Michael E. Smith, Sam Falls at Zabludowicz Collection, London

Despite being billed as four separate exhibitions of the work of four sculptors from disparate areas – both artistically and geographically – this amalgamation of works at the Zabludowicz Collection sits together very comfortably in a way that opens up lines of dialogue between each of the artists. A running theme seems to be the alchemy of the artist; their ability to turn previously worthless objects into something with both meaning and beauty. This ability is of course demonstrated in an extremely facile sense by the top end of the art market, but the sculptors at the Zabludowicz Collection don’t seem interested in creating gold from trash in a monetary sense. They each do it in a way which highlights the absurdity of our existing systems of value. Adriano Costa employs quintessentially domestic found items: jumpers, ladders, umbrellas etc. and places them in intriguing arrangements. They still have a run-down aesthetic, being little more than detritus, but the new meanings they take on, whilst highly ambiguous imbue them with a new set of values.

Meanwhile, Michael E. Smith takes a similar approach, yet the items he uses are altogether more novel: a goose’s body freed of its head and limbs; discs of human skull; a stuffed dogs head encased in plastic with Mr Potato Head feet. There’s an intriguing element which goes beyond the absurdly morbid subject matter and perhaps reflects the insatiable curiosity we have for matters of life and death. From the ridiculous to the sublime, Samara Scott employs a vivid palette and large scale works which have an instant impact on the viewer. Of particular merit are her Gastebuch installations; sheets of glass at ankle height which have random objects glued to them making mesmeric patterns. The juxtaposition of Scott’s childlike aesthetic with the use of cosmetics for their colour conjures up issues of the pressure on young people – girls in particular – to grow up to fast via sexualised imagery. Continuing the monumental scale on, Sam Falls sculptures do however employ a slightly more muted palette; deep blues and greens and the raw, earthy colours of bare metals. They are almost too pristine, with a geometric preciseness, and their scale and the material they use make them feel ill at ease indoors. This collection of artists represents an interesting cross-section of contemporary sculpture, which stand up individually, but really come together harmoniously.

August: Cathy Wilkes, Generation at Tramway, Glasgow

Cathy Wilkes’s bizarre assemblage of figures and furniture is spectacularly dwarfed by the cavernous surroundings of the Tramway’s Gallery 2 space. It takes up such a meagre portion of the vast expanse of industrial wall and floor space, so as to appear like a crude diorama put together by a slightly disturbed child. Haunting characters made of a wool, simply attired in patterned fabric appear sullen, mournful even. They are culturally indistinct and their gender is not always clear either. This resistance to easy categorisation is perhaps a nod to the universal human experience of death and mourning. Yes, cultures deal with death differently, but they each have a set of (changing) behaviours and rituals which are carried out when a member of the community dies. Three babes appear to have met their end as they are strewn on the floor like dolls. Some mourners are crouched, others stand tall with broad shoulders.

Even the apparently adult characters have a sort of juvenile air, with round, oversized heads that resemble a baby’s, and some have childlike grins plastered on their faces. The conflation of childhood and death imbues the exhibition with an even deeper sense of sorrow. An indefinite collection of objects accompany the figures, perhaps the paraphernalia of death, mementos, lucky charms; these apparently worthless items seem to have a significance, they are the comforting treasures of sentimental value. Wilkes avoids clear definitive meanings and instead embraces ambiguity. A net of wool is strung between two pillars, like a representation of the thread, or veil between the living and the dead, between past and present. The use of such delicate materials reminds us how fragile human life can be.

September: Nathaniel Marie Quinn Past/Present at Pace, London

Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s work in Past/Present takes the form of bizarre abstract portraiture of indeterminate figures, fastidiously collaged assemblages of both artistic mediums and imagery making up a slightly inchoate whole. They have a raw, visceral quality, as if the fault lines that divide the figures represent deep emotional scar tissue. Clearly, Quinn’s work is of a profoundly personal nature; a cathartic exploration of identity along the cross-cutting intersections of race, gender and class, that come together to form a matrix of oppression and self-expression. Heavily racialised imagery and language come together in a powerful conflux for King Kong Ain’t Got Nothing on Me a misappropriated quote from Denzel Washington’s character in the film Training Day. It’s a phrase typical of African-American street culture, whilst the image itself combines the arm of a gorilla with a cut and pasted triptych of a young black male wearing haughty boots that seem out of place. It embodies the internalised racism which is so prevalent in many minority communities in the West, whilst at the same time making uncomfortable viewing for a white audience.

Elsewhere, the equally fraught lines of gender are blurred just as masterfully, in pieces such as Lala and Diane. The former juxtaposes hyper-masculine imagery – in this case huge biceps and a ripped six-pack – with more subtle feminine touches such as flowers in the hair. These apparently ambiguous figures seem to be an outward expression of the artist’s own internal battles as he navigates both his own identity and his relationships with those closest to him on the page. And whilst these are a reflection of a deeply personal tussle, they speak to much wider socio-political issues, as most good art should, as if embodying the old feminist adage that the personal is political.

October: Various Artists, Frieze Sculpture Park, London

October is perennially the month of a certain art fair in the capital. Typically galleries go into over-drive to put some of their best shows on to coincide with said art fair, whether they position themselves as pro, or anti-Frieze (I couldn’t resist the pun). Away from the pounding mania and frenetic activity of the fair itself, Frieze Sculpture Park generally provides a more insouciant counterpoint. There’s still an absolute embarrassment of riches (and no, I’m not talking about the prevalence of Russian oligarchs) with 20 sculptures from a truly global gamut of artists.

Korean-born Seung-taek Lee’s anti-war Ppira, made in the 1970s still provide a fitting critique. They resemble missile silos but are instead made of long balloons which undulate hypnotically in the wind. They reference the propaganda pamphlets still dropped today from air-balloon between the antagonistic North and South. The huge balloons are held down by the lightest of things, packets of food, paper money, as if to say the billions lavished on nuclear bombs could be better spent, and the lightness of the missile-like objects suggest they could be easily overcome.

KAWS’s ironically entitled Small Lie is a giant (20+ foot) wooden figure, more than slightly reminiscent of a certain Disney-branded mouse. It’s sheer size imbues it with a sort of jovial absurdity, exacerbated by its morbidly depressed slumping stance. Perhaps this Mickey look-a-like is suffering a crisis of conscience for all the evil of his parent company. Is the Small Lie a reference to Disney’s attempt to brand our childhood’s behind the veneer of cutesy characters?

Where Did You Sleep Last Night? by Kristin Oppenheim is brilliantly simple; a circle of speakers which envelopes you in an a wall of sound, creating a sort of phantom space that’s purely aural. The distinctive reverb transports you to the soundscape of another place, in this case, the auditorium of the French Communist Party HQ. Overlapping mellifluous tones have a soothing effect, but there’s also something sinister behind the disarmingly honeyed voices. One of Yayoi Kusama’s signature brass pumpkins makes a welcome appearance, in all its voluptuous, organic glory. Martin Creed’s video installation, Work No. 732 brings a chuckle with his typical cavalier style. In it, he mercilessly kicks over some flowers before brutally massacring them in super-slow motion which adds to the comic effect. Is this Creed making a statement that his brand of controversial art is anathema to more traditional forms such as the bucolic pleasures of still life? Or is this his attempt to reach out, albeit in a slightly aggressive manner?

November: Various Artists, Ex-Factory, Stoke-on-Trent

What do you get when you put up 5 artists in a mouldy one-bed flat for a month and give them carte blanche in a massive disused factory? A fucking great exhibition, apparently. Leslie Deere’s immersive sound and light installation revels in the expansive space afforded by almost the entire ground floor of this derelict factory. A pounding soundscape works in harmony with stark strip lights which cycle on and off in a slightly off-kilter rhythm, illuminating concrete pillars dappled with colours and then plunging others into semi-darkness. The soundtrack instils a deep sense of foreboding, transforming the space into a cacophonous cathedral to de-industrialisation. Bizarre sculptures of re-used wafer-thin plastic provide a fragile counterpoint to the harshness of the lighting and the surroundings. Strips of paint flake from the ceiling and walls as if induced by the sonorous sounds. This is as much a deeply moving experience as it is an artwork.

Shaun Doyle and Mally Mallinson provide a bit of comic relief with their so-called ‘Wendy squats’ and witty sloganeering. The former consist of child’s playhouses with boarded up windows and doors. They are placed on plinths higher than the viewers head, and thus absurdly monumentalised. They perhaps pass comment on the current housing crisis, rising rents and the criminalisation of squatting – all equally absurd. Despite being mere toy houses they are still tantalisingly out of reach. Upstairs, their works take the form of slogans accompanied by suitable images including “Our War is More Civil Than Yours” and “Our Soul is More Northern Than Yours”, the latter depicting the iconic clenched fist on what resembles a banner from a miner’s gala.

Chloe Cooper’s work flows throughout the first floor, and also employs a humour. Bizarre sculptures of melting yellow are juxtaposed with a gigantic cut out of R. Kelly. It takes the accompanying video to explain that the ideas area play on the exhibition title Ex-Factory/X-Factor-ey. Cooper’s work is a clear lampooning of celebrity culture, with the unsightly yellow oozings perhaps representing its ugly side.

Cascading from the rafters of the first floor ceiling like those long banners employed by the Third Reich, sheets of amorphous, faceless figures stare back at you. They’re almost incomprehensible aside from the distinct surround of a turban. Their rigid uniformity seems to mirror the homogenised representation of Arab/Islamic figures in the post 9/11 era. In the next room, diminutive sculptures of the same image are dotted on the walls. They are in fact ornaments that were produced in a factory in the nearby area in the 1970s. People would use them to decorate their living rooms and whilst this exoticisation of Eastern ‘others’ was undoubtedly racial stereotyping, it was at least showing endearment, unlike the current association of Arabs with terrorism. Artist Leigh Clarke bought all the figures he could find from Ebay before defacing them for the exhibition. It’s a deeply poignant comment, given that these faces once adorned the walls of some of the same working class households that likely see immigrants as the enemy and associate Islam with terrorism thanks to media misrepresentations.

Overall, the exhibition is a triumph that comes together beautifully. What is most impressive is the way that each of the artists have responded to the unique setting, making for an inimitable experience.

December: Tim Garner at Artzu Gallery, Manchester

Tim Garner’s haunting amalgams of painting and photography are both an ode and a lilting lament for the city of Manchester. They depict seemingly banal, almost nondescript scenes: a garage; a closed-down chippy; a terraced street. And whilst locals might recognise these anti-landmarks, there’s a definite sense that they could belong to any quintessentially Northern town or city. It’s as if Garner has distilled a sense of Northern identity, its soul, its spirit, on the page. In this respect they bear more than a passing parallel to the work of Turner Prize-nominated George Shaw.

The pieces conjure up a confusing conflux of emotions though. The images have a hazy quality but also employ vivid colours at times. This gives them a sense of being representations of distant memories both faded by time but also brighter than reality. Garner spent more than twenty years away from his native North West and describes rediscovering its beauty as a “constant joy”. The works certainly have an air of rekindled romance between spurned lovers; there’s an awareness of both their blemishes and their beauty. Garner’s buildings have a ghostly, ethereal appearance which is fitting because many are probably soon to be knocked down, while others already have been. It would therefore be easy to read the images as a chronicle of urban decay, and there is certainly a hint of that, but there’s also a sort of childlike optimism about them of renewal and hope. Pieces like Moss Lane are overlaid with star-spangled borders at once juvenile and absurd given the gritty subject matter they surround. For any homesick Northerner, or just anyone who has a mixed relationship with their hometown, Garner’s work should really strike a chord.

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