Saturday, 5 December 2009

Pop Life / The Museum of Everything

Pop Life: Art in the Material World is the latest in the series of Tate Modern exhibitions this year, following Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism and Futurism, charting the development of populist art over the twentieth century. Viewed as a sequence you can trace the development of several narratives: growing commercialism, the dissolving boundaries between art, propaganda, and advertising, and the consequent focus on visually striking graphics.

From the moment you enter Pop Life you’re assailed by music, colour, and flashing lights: plunged into a morass of rolling video, industrial sculptures, and immersive installations. The sheer number of works is overwhelming. It begins with a heavy dose of Warhol, before racing breathlessly through Martin Kipperberger, Ashley Bickerton, and Cosey Fanni Tutti, among others, arriving at the present day via the YBAs (Turk-Emin-Lucas-Hirst), and climaxing with a roomful of Takashi Murakami.

It's a shrine to Sex, Money, and Fame, which come together most climactically perhaps in Jeff Koons’ ‘Made in Heaven’, a room full of vast technicolour prints of close-up penetration, and glass, marble and plastic sculptures of the artist in flagrante delicto with his porn-star wife, La Cicciolina of ‘Eurotrash’ and Italo-politics fame.

Many of the works here aim to shock, but this is a carefully calculated, saleable shock. One room contains just a small television, showing a man and a woman having sex. Here’s the Tate’s accompanying explanation:
[Andrea] Fraser initiated this project by asking one of her galleries to find a collector who would pre-buy a videotape documenting that collector having sex with the artist. The selection of the collector was left entirely up to the gallery. The result was a silent, unedited sixty-minute videotape shot in a hotel room with a stationary camera and existing lighting. The videotape was produced in an edition of five, the first of which went to the participating collector for an undisclosed sum.

'All of my work is about what we want from art, what collectors want, what artists want from collectors, what museum audiences want... not only economically, but in more personal, psychological and affective terms', Fraser has said. By offering 'herself' up for sale, she pushes this investigation and the viewer's desire for intimacy with the artist to their logical extreme.

I'm not sure if, as a viewer, I want 'intimacy' with an artist: I am sure that that desire doesn't equate to watching her have sex with someone for money. This is not intimate in any sense; it doesn’t even have the hyperreal, celebratory quality of Koons' photographs and sculptures. Without knowing the backstory, it’s meaningless, and with that knowledge, it’s grim and sordid in a peculiarly uninteresting way.

This collapse of the artwork into capitalist desire reaches its peak with Keith Haring’s ‘Pop Shop’, a whole room of the exhibition dedicated to Haring’s childlike primary-coloured designs (familiar from a thousand t-shirts, notebooks, and posters) with an actual shop incorporated into the installation, complete with shop assistant. Here, you can buy little Haring souvenirs right in the middle of the exhibition, obviating even the need to complete the ritual post-exhibition visit to the gift shop. At this point the commercialism has penetrated to the very heart of, or more accurately made a nonsense of the concept of, ‘the art itself’.

Damien Hirst’s 'Beautiful Inside My Head Forever', a range of works from from last year’s record-breaking Sotheby’s sale, revel in this merging of art and commerce. The room glitters with arrays of manufactured diamonds, gleaming gold frames, reflective surfaces… The Tate might extol this as Hirst ‘turn[ing] one of [the art world’s] defining rituals into a work of “total theatre”’ but in truth, it’s a room full of pretty objects worth a lot of money.

Takashi Murakami’s output is also pretty in the extreme, even if you’re not a fan of anime. A riot of silver discs dripping bright colours, flashing neon, Kirsten Dunst gyrating to The Vapors’ ‘Turning Japanese’, diamond-encrusted miniature versions of Coke cans. Rather than thoughts, these works succeed remarkably well in provoking desire for ownership. People who can will pay a lot of money for them (even if this is only to provoke desire and envy in others).

By the end of the exhibition you are breathless with wanting, slightly nauseous with the colours and lights and the vague hangover-aftertaste of a synthetic sugar rush. Pop Life is a riot of glitz and glamour with very little depth.

Apparently at the opposite end of the art-commerce spectrum is the newly-opened Museum of Everything. Tucked away down a side street in the genteel Chalk Farm/Primrose Hill borderlands, this gallery of ‘outsider art’ has been getting rave reviews. Architecturally and aesthetically, it is deliberately ramshackle and ‘amateur’, full of handwritten signs, half-finished walls, mugs of tea and slices of cake served in the cafĂ©. This at best semi-disguises its origins as very much part of the commercial art world; co-founded by the almightily powerful Hans Ulrich Obrist and a ‘VIP affiliate’ of the Frieze Art Fair.

The full range of outsider art is represented here: the good, the bad, and the very very ugly. Ugliness is everywhere – the ugliness of the inner self, the twists and horrors of existence, pain, brutality, nausea. Untaught and uncritiqued during their lifetimes, for the most part, these artists create not with a view to a sell, but from something inside. And the inside that you see is horrible. Most of these artists were people whose lives consisted of suffering; they were variously beset by lunacy, physical disease, childhood abuse, poverty, loneliness, disabilities of various forms.

There’s a faux-chapel, complete with battered old organ and scratchy gospel music, wherein are exhibited works connected by a religious theme, many by men of the cloth. None of these are especially artistically accomplished, but these personal takes on Christianity can be productively compared with Maurizio Cattelan’s contribution to Pop Life: a dead horse (in fact a stuffed horse’s skin – no maggot infestations or irreversible decay here) with a sign plugged into its flank reading INRI. Cattelan's is a conceptual and emotional dead-end; you enter the room and it’s there, that’s all. There’s no confrontation with mortality, nothing in particular is evoked by its big dead horseness. By contrast, the Museum of Everything’s collection of Christian-inspired madnesses has a twisted desperation that leaves you at least somewhat unsettled.

If there’s a common aesthetic to identify in the Museum of Everything’s exhibition, it’s excess: but not, as in Pop Life, an excess of money, colour and glitter. Instead this is the excess of madness, drawings that are far too intricate, eyes within eyes within eyes, endless twists of metal and wool, text that seems to scrawl on and on forever.

The ultimate example of this excess comes from the exhibition’s biggest attraction, the fairy-tale like paintings of Henry Darger. Darger is the author of the longest known work of fiction: The Realms (full title The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion) runs to over 15,000 pages with accompanying illustrations, and judging from those on show here, this excessive creation is not the sign of a healthy mind.

Darger is fĂȘted by the fashionable, and there’s even a notice up here (perhaps the low point of the entire museum) excoriating you as viewer for your (anticipated) narrow-minded conformist response, and sneering at those who have found Darger’s work distressing or distasteful in the past.

However, from outside the depths of art criticism, this is not perhaps an unreasonable response to thousands of drawings of naked girl-children being strangled, tortured, disembowelled, and murdered. Oh, and did I mention they have penises? Sometimes erect? Regardless of the quality of Darger’s paintings – for example, their impressive scope, composition, and colour – you can’t get away from the feeling that they are the compulsive and solitary expression of a very fucked-up psyche.

This shouldn’t disqualify them from consideration as art (leaving aside, for the moment, the thorny question of the ethics of selling and displaying art that was never intended to be made public), but neither does it mean that those who might find them unsettling should be denigrated by the gallery’s creators.

Another common theme, also superlatively exemplified by Darger, is repetition. The same figures with the same expressions appear over and over again. There is a practical reason for this – he was a poor draughtsman who used, and re-used, figures cut out of magazines and adverts – but it also expresses something disturbing. In ‘The Uncanny’, Freud identifies one of the major ‘themes of uncanniness’ as:
the constant recurrence of the same thing — the repetition of the same features or character-traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, or even the same names through several consecutive generations.

Repetition appears in Pop Life, too, but the repetition of Warhol et. al. is a well-known ironic commentary on commercialism: the question of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. By contrast, the repetitions in the Museum of Everything are compulsive, obsessive, repeated returns to a trauma. Later in Freud’s essay, expanding upon this theme, he adds:

[I]t is possible to recognize the dominance in the unconscious mind of a ‘compulsion to repeat’ proceeding from the instinctual impulses and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts — a compulsion powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the impulses of small children; a compulsion, too, which is responsible for a part of the course taken by the analyses of neurotic patients. All these considerations prepare us for the discovery that whatever reminds us of this inner ‘compulsion to repeat’ is perceived as uncanny.
It’s impossible to walk through the Museum of Everything without being constantly reminded of this ‘inner “compulsion to repeat”. Other artists cover sheet after sheet of paper with black-on-white scrawls that look something like a musical score, something like words, but don’t make as much sense as either of these. Even Nek Chand’s lovely sculptures of people and animals, created from junk found beside Indian railway tracks in his home city of Chandigarh, have a deep uncanninness about them that stems in large part from the repetition of form, stance, expression between them. You stand between two sculpture gardens, one set of figures in monochrome, one set in full colour, and you are surrounded by lifesize figures all in the same postures, over and over again. Chand worked in secret for over three decades until his sculptures, already numbering in the hundreds, were discovered. He was fortunate enough that when his employers found out, they continued to pay his salary, allowed him to keep the land, and gave him a staff of fifty workers to support his creation.

What almost all of the works here evidence is an inner compulsion to repeat not only specific figures, features, words, or images, but the compulsion to repeat the process itself, the act of making art. Chand’s story is told as a happy one; His sculpture garden in Chandigarh now covers twenty-five acres, contains several thousand sculptures, and is one of India’s major tourist attractions. But it leaves certain questions unanswered: Why was he so terrified of discovery? Or, being so terrified, why did he continue to create? He wasn’t living in a totalitarian state or under sharia law; his employers’ reaction, while perhaps more generous that anyone would have predicted, demonstrates that he was at no great risk if he was discovered.

The Time Out review of the Museum of Everything concludes: "After last week's showy commercial fest built around Frieze Art Fair, a visit to this exhibition is a welcome reminder that at its base, the desire to create satisfies a basic human rather than financial need."

This is something of an oversimplification. It posits an overly-straightforward definition of art as stemming from an internal desire as opposed to commercial interests, and sets up outsider art as an untainted manifestation of that desire, reminiscent of previous attempts to reach the pure origins of art by examining works produced by the mentally handicapped, those with autism, animals, children and prehistoric people (seeking ‘the purity of nature, of animality, primitivism, childhood, madness, divinity’, as Derrida neatly puts it).

But art that interacts at some level with other people, with culture, could surely be argued to be just as ‘natural’ and ‘basic’. From ancient artefacts to graffiti tags, the desire to create often seems to include also a desire to share that creation, to reach out, to mark the world. Its opposite - the desire to conceal and to keep secret – is not pure, happy, untroubled. Just as having neurological impairments doesn’t make you Forrest Gump.

A more positive take on the possibilities of ‘outsider art’ is presented by the works of Judith Scott. Scott, who had Down’s Syndrome and was also profoundly deaf, was wrongly diagnosed with severe learning difficulties and spent most of her life in institutions. It was relatively late in life that, through an occupational therapy art class, she began to make ‘wrapped sculptures’. These are large objects, made by wrapping knotted cloth or wool around frames of bamboo or wood. Non-representational, and more powerful for that, these large multicoloured shapes have an odd force. The Museum of Everything has done an outstanding job of exhibiting them; they are suspended in mid-air, strange heavy shapes floating in a sort-of corridor tucked behind the gallery walls. Perhaps because Scott’s alienation from the world was forcible, imposed from without, there is something about her art which suggests more of a catharsis, art that reaches out and communicates, not locked into a perpetual inward-directed monologue.

Art doesn’t have to be as grossly commercial or blatantly market-driven as Pop Life, but conventionally it takes place in a context of display, sharing. What makes these artists outsiders is not that they failed to attract public attention, but that they never sought it out; indeed, in many cases, they went to great lengths to keep it hidden and private. If many of these artists were discovered posthumously, this is because they hid their works under beds, in barns, in boxes. These are the anti-Van Goghs, locked into a private dialogue. They didn’t seek to connect with others, but built barriers around themselves. These art works are big ‘Keep Out’ signs in a language you can only half-understand.

This leads to difficult questions about the balance between the inner and the outer, the private and the public, the goal of expressing oneself in art. Etymologically, to 'express' something means 'to press out'; connected to pressure, it suggests that there is a building force within, something that has to be pushed out.

But pushed out to where, to whom? The idea of art as expression is art as catharsis, but the endless repetition and unending creation of these private artists suggests it’s a catharsis that doesn’t work, a purging that fails to bring out the poison, a purification that doesn’t get rid of the stain.

Pop Life, as its subtitle suggests, is part of the ultra-social realm, the world of commerce and politics and second-guessing other people’s reactions to aesthetic productions. To be a good artist in this mould is to be a futures trader. This art is so relentlessly directed towards the generically, plurally sociocultural that it loses all soul. Nothing is expressed beyond the desire to succeed. There is nothing to purge, or if there is, it won’t happen this way.

A giant photograph of Jeff Koons’ erect penis entering Cicciolina’s vagina is nothing; not even erotic, it’s surface, it leaves you cold. It tells you nothing about Koons except that he wants to fuck porn stars and show you pictures proving he’s done it and get money for them (in some order of priority – determining this order is not very interesting at all, probably even for Jeff Koons).

Does this mean that there’s a perfect middle ground? Between the impermeable solitary self-expression of outsider art and participation in culture and society, does great art strike some kind of ideal balance? Or to put it another way, why characterise only outsider art as characteristic of the ‘inner compulsion to repeat’? Couldn’t you equally say that Mark Rothko or Pablo Picasso, painting endless variations on an idiosyncratic theme, betray a compulsion to produce the same or nearly the same work over and over again?

The first part of the answer is that there is no absolute difference, no perfect opposition between compulsive solipsistic outsider art and outward-directed socially-engaged potentially-commercial art. It’s a spectrum, and probably most great artists do share this quality of compulsive repetition to at least some extent.

However, the interaction with other people that results from the sharing of one’s work with others, the daring to put it out into the public domain and to risk the many possible consequences – condemnation, ridicule, disgust, or simple indifference – has effects on the art that is subsequently produced. Reading reviews, getting feedback, seeing other artists’ work, learning about art history, being part of cultural currents, means that the work your produce is determined by more than your own internal compulsions. It creates a dialogue, a polylogue, it feeds in more than your own neuroses and psychoses, it alters the future paths that you follow.

This might make your art less ‘pure’, but not even the most hermit-like outsiders are truly immune from others’ work. This means that there is a development, a progression. Rothko doesn’t begin by making ‘Rothkos’ and just carry on creating the same thing over and over again. Picasso has periods, his style mutates and grows. Perhaps the ability to create great art comes from taking both aspects on board, experiencing the catharsis of taking something from within but also properly ‘putting it out there’, allowing it to brave the rays of the sun and seeing if it can withstand the light.

The closest that Pop Life gets to art that drags something out from the inside is Tracey Emin’s ‘Hotel International’, a patchwork quilt which traces Emin’s own biography. Both in its focus on the personal and in its use of folksy handcrafted technique, this work could almost sit as comfortably in the Museum of Everything as it does here: strangely amateur, low-budget, and out of place in this glitzy shallow world.

Emin is often accused of being overly narcissistic and of placing herself too often at the centre of her work (an accusation less often levelled at Rembrandt, master of the self-portrait), and it is true that ‘Hotel International’ takes her own life as its subject matter. However, her use of fabrics – floral velvet, soft felt, big cotton stitches – provokes nostalgia for your own childhood. Looking at it, I had a strong memory of sitting on the floor in my grandma’s house, running my hands over the fabric of her sofa while adults talked around me.

In a broader sense, Emin’s confessions and anecdotes, while very specific to her own life, remind you of similar parallel experiences in your own life; her tale of burying her urine-soaked sheets in the snow while on a school trip is an inescapable reminder of the bodily shames and humiliation of your own adolescence. In this sense they provide the 'intimacy' which Andrea Fraser's prostitution-as-art doesn't.

And this is where Emin’s work can’t be classed as outsider art. Forget her designation as part of the YBAs, forget her trendy ‘shop’ co-run with Sarah Lucas, forget all the social context. In terms of the art work itself, what this does is to reach you, to make you aware of the connections between yourself and the artist, hence to create a sympathy in the fullest sense: a sym-pathos, a feeling-with, a fellow-feeling, a sense of being less alone in the universe.

In a sense, Emin’s own experiences are each of our experiences too; they have different specific content but there’s a shared form. A pain shared is a pain, if not halved or annihilated, at least made more bearable by the knowledge that, in some way, we are all in this together.

That’s what outsider artists can’t, won’t, or didn’t recognise, and it’s what makes their diverse works all somehow inaccessible. These are people who, through choice or otherwise, are locked into solitude and can’t use their creativity as a way to break out of that enclosure. The Museum of Everything’s founder (and major collector) James Brett has described it as a "public museum showing extraordinary works of privacy". Extraordinary privacy is not something to be sought after. It makes you strange and lonely. And it makes you draw a lot of little girls with hard-ons.

Pop Life: Art in a Material World, Tate Modern, 1 October 2009 – 17 January 2010
The Museum of Everything, Corner of Regents Park Rd and Sharples Hall St, NW1 8YL, October 2009-14 February 2010

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Seeing Through Kingsmead Eyes

A version of this piece was first published in the Hackney Citizen, 29 November 2009.

When someone is photographed, they become special, important, worth looking at; but they also become objects, to be looked at. How can those who are represented also tell their own stories?

Acclaimed photojournalist Gideon Mendel has struggled with this question throughout his twenty-five-year-plus career. “It’s something I’ve never quite resolved,” he says.

For his latest project, jointly conceived with Kingsmead Primary School in Homerton, Mendel tackled this problem by inviting his subjects to become documentary photographers themselves.

As well as taking portraits of all the school’s pupils, which were eventually combined in a large composite image, he and fellow photographer Crispin Hughes gave them cameras and trained them to document their own lives.

The result is Kingsmead Eyes, a collaborative exhibition in the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, co-funded by the school and Sanctuary Housing Association.

Mendel has been resident in Hackney for 17 years, but is best known for his award-winning documentation of those living (and dying) with HIV/AIDS. For him, this project involved “finding photographic meaning as much around the corner as on the other side of the world”.

The composite portrait of the children is compelling. The kids meet your gaze full on, solemn, unsmiling. You look into serious eyes; and if you turn around, you can look out from those eyes too.

On the opposite wall are works by the 28 children who participated in the project. Each has contributed one photograph and an accompanying handwritten poem.

The poems were written with the guidance of Joelle Taylor, poet-in-residence at the school for the past two years, where she is known as “the rapping lady”. Her beatbox poetry workshops, says headteacher Louise Nichols, “have been a huge success in helping the children to express themselves”, especially important in a school where 85% of pupils do not have English as a first language.

The school’s decision to collaborate with these leading artists and to entrust the kids with Panasonic Lumix cameras (most of which survived), demonstrates its commitment to creative excellence. As Mendel says, he wanted to “go somewhere special, different.”

And they did. Some media coverage has presented the exhibition as a novelty: a sort of highbrow “Kids Say The Funniest Things”. But these works are worthy of attention not because they’re created by ten-year-olds from a deprived part of London, but in their own right.

The photographs, selected by Mendel and Hughes together with the children from over 3000 images, are oddly beautiful, moving snapshots of lives as they are lived.

Food features heavily: toasted sandwiches, plates of chips and salad, gloriously coloured Smarties. Zainab Ahmed’s close-up of homemade cake, thick with icing and hundreds-and-thousands, might seem a familiarly comforting image, were it not for her accompanying text:

I was a tiny cute baby when people came to my house

Such delicious food
Licking their fingers,
I would stick out my hand wanting some
I am still waiting.

This arresting, unexpected gloss reminds you that the way children see the world is anything but straightforward.

Other representations reflect their personal significance to their owners. When Sefora Lema wears her ‘sparkling, magical, wonderful’ crown, she writes, ‘I’m the queen’. Especially viewed in the Museum of Childhood, these photographs evoke the real power of these treasured objects.

Terrence Aidoo has photographed three teenage boys, football champions; seen from below, against a bright blue sky, they look monumental, proud, heroic.

Family members appear often, offering glimpses of part-shared, part-hidden lives. Omar Kanyi’s photograph of a group of men in his living room takes you back to hovering on the edges of half-understood adult conversations.

But children see and hear much more than adults may realise. We see Jordan Lema’s mother through the kitchen door on the phone to his father in Africa; he writes of her efforts to stay brave and her private prayers. Kingsmead eyes see you.

All of Mendel’s photographic work engages with politics and ethics, and this exhibition inevitably touches on contemporary social issues, such as one boy’s work in memory of his brother’s friend, stabbed ‘by a flick knife’.

But there are no didactic messages here. Socioeconomically and culturally, the Kingsmead pupils come from very mixed backgrounds (95% are from ethnic minorities). But Mendel wanted to “avoid romanticising” deprivation without denying the existence of “difficult, painful things in society”. His own mesmerising images of the Kingsmead Estate came from his close involvement with the community, and provide the contextual overview which complements the children’s stranger, sideways takes.

The children’s photographs could be flatly read as indicators of class or culture, but what you see instead is their personal meaning: my balcony, my brother’s bedroom. Part of this personal relation to the world is privacy, secrecy, claiming spaces as one's own. Dennis Fofanah’s photograph of an apparently unremarkable pair of closed curtains is transformed by his writing: ‘Behind the green curtain is a parallel universe’.

Echoing this, other children tell of ‘secret clubhouses’ and ‘secret games’. Temporarily, we are allowed into these private, magical spaces. No adult, regardless of skill or experience, could have created these images and words. Secret games are only secret if you’re not playing too.

As Mendel says, “the holy grail of documentary photography is intimate access”, and nothing can “compete with the access a child has to their own life”. By sharing their own lives, these children become not statistics or symbols but people, with richly individual existences.

Kingsmead eyes have seen, and this is what they saw.

Kingsmead Eyes: A collaborative exhibition by Gideon Mendel and Kingsmead School, Front Room Gallery, V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green. 7 November 2009 – 7 February 2010

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Orthodox Jewish Life - Andrew Aitchison

This review was first published in the Hackney Citizen, 15th November 2009

Madame Lillie's Presents ‘Orthodox Jewish Life – Stamford Hill’
A Photographic Exhibition by local photographer Andrew Aitchison
(Part of Photo Month 2009)
If you live in Hackney, you’ve seen them: otherworldly figures in black hats and coats, flowing beards and sidelocks, perhaps with an incongruous Coke can or mobile phone in hand.

They are the Hassidim, the Orthodox Jews of North-East London.

Even to other London Jews, they’re something of a mystery. This is a thoroughly self-contained community with its own schools, shops, and housing estates.

So Andrew Aitchison’s new exhibition and accompanying book constitute something of a coup. When he moved to Stamford Hill, Aitchison (originally from very un-Semitic Wiltshire) was inspired to begin a personal photography project, documenting the lives of his Orthodox Jewish neighbours.

Over five years, he gained the trust of the community through a combination of persistence and respect. The result of this trust is an exhibition of ten canvas-printed photographs offering a rare insight into the rituals and habits of Orthodox Jewish life.

Many are visually striking: ‘New Sefer Torah’, a sea of black coats and hats punctuated by pale, watchful faces, and ‘Pidyon Haben’, a richly-coloured close-up of a baby being draped in gleaming, intricate gold jewellery.

While Aitchison places his own work squarely in the documentary tradition, many of these photographs appear highly stylised. The face of the young boy learning the Torah in ‘Upsherin’ is illuminated in surrounding blackness; this may be an accidental effect, but nevertheless its light and composition is reminiscent of classical painting.

Almost all these photographs are of men; only one picture has any women in it. Aitchison explains that this is partly due to the difficulty of photographing women, and also because of his wish to respect the community’s desire for privacy.

If there’s a criticism of this exhibition, it’s that there’s no particular ethos behind it; Aitchison simply wanted to document these rarely-shown scenes.

However, the photographs are fascinating in their own right and the exhibition is worth visiting, if only to glimpse a world very nearby, but somehow very far removed.

'Orthodox Jewish Life' is at Madame Lillie’s Gallery, 10 Cazenove Rd, N16 6BD, until Sunday 6th December. Opening hours Friday - Sunday 12-6pm. To view by appointment: 07990695363.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Spirits of Turpentine: Wiebke Dreyer and Sybille Gburek

This review was first published in the Hackney Citizen, 31 October 2009

This new exhibition in Stoke Newington showcases works by two artists: both female and originally from Germany, but the similarities end there.

Gburek is primarily a photographer, and most of her works here are digitally-manipulated self-portraits. In various guises (‘Aphrodite’, ‘Addict’, ‘Lover’), Gburek’s expressionless face regards the camera flatly from behind an assortment of wigs, make-up, and digitally-superimposed filigree patterns or text. These large, clean, lustrous photographs are visually appealing, with a distinctively Oriental aesthetic, although it’s difficult to draw out definite meanings from these (re)presentations of the self.

The gallery itself is an unusual space of hidden nooks and staircases; the heavy wooden beams and metal chains that hang from the ceiling evidence its former role as a sculptor’s studio. Gburek has exploited its potential; the charred fireplace in the gallery wall holds ‘Paradox of Intension’, a pair of shiny red Carvela shoes atop a pyramid of salt, and ‘I Love Your Brain’, a delicate Chinese fan, while an oryx skull draped with pearls is presented on the wall above.

Meanwhile, Dreyer’s paintings contrast sharply with this contemporary glossiness. Describing herself as a landscape painter, her works are vivid, near-abstract explosions of colour and texture. ‘Sand Circle, Large’ is a glorious spread of gold, silver, and dark chocolate trails of paint on a grainy background, with a cluster of grey pebbles in one corner, while ‘Energy Line’, a tall slim rectangle of oranges and yellows with a thick line of dark red paint curling its way up the length of the canvas, glows from one corner of the gallery. ‘Sleepthief, Large’, a stand-out work, is a lush burst of deep blues and purples, streaked with lumps of whites and paler blues and suggesting some kind of moonscape.

These are unusually direct and unpretentious paintings which communicate a powerful sense of the richness of the natural world.

'Spirits Of Turpentine' is at Madame Lillie’s Gallery, 10 Cazenove Rd, N16 6BD, until Sunday 8th November. Opening hours Friday - Sunday 12-6pm. To view by appointment: 07990695363.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Bold Tendencies III

Broadcast from 1989 to 1994, and set in a hairdressers in Peckham, Desmond’s was one of the first British sitcoms to have a predominantly Black West Indian cast. Watched from my white North London suburban shelter, it was a window onto a mirrorworld only a few miles away.

Fast forward to August 2009. Peckham remains one of the most West Indian areas of London. Street level shopping is a riot of hairpieces, immense earrings, piles of breadfruit, callalloo and sweet mangoes, Nigerian doughnuts with lethal cholesterol levels, tilapia fish and red snapper, rum cream, aphrodisiac wine, and fifteen different brands of Supermalt. Then, unexpectedly tucked away up one of the litter-strewn alleyways, you find the Peckham Vue multiplex cinema and its hulking carapace of multistorey car park.

Over the summer, the roof of this car park was temporarily transformed for the Bold Tendencies III exhibition and Frank’s Campari bar. Finding the exhibition was a challenge in itself. The handwritten sign ‘Lifts out of order. Please use alternative lifts at the side’ directed us to a lift that threatened to be alternative in the sense of not lifting at all. Escaping at last from its aches and creaks, we found ourselves in more uncertain territory, on the 7th floor with no sign of Art at all. A sign directing us to Bold Tendencies led only to a piss-smelling lobby with three blank walls and another sign pointing back in the direction we’d come.

As we ascended, climbing the car-less ramps and trying to shake the sense of being trapped in a sadistic text adventure, we finally started to see the telltale signs of Nearby Art: loose gaggles of people with specs wearing black; abandoned sheets of A4 paper blowing in the high-up wind; distant mobile-phone braying. There were glimpses of a long-distance view between concrete columns, but not stopping to look, we pressed on up.

Eventually we emerged on to the rooftop and into a version of Peckham which had been through the looking-glass again. Up here, everyone was white. Young. Middle-class. We eschewed the jostle and bray of the overpriced Campari bar, and instead climbed up Molly Smyth’s 'Motion Towards Collapse' (a not-quite-symmetrical pile of concrete blocks) to warm ourselves with homemade blackberry gin (thanks to Dogsbody D) and admire the 360-degree views across the city.

The art works themselves, mostly minimalist metal or stone sculptures, were none of them individually especially striking, but the overall effect had something about it: odd abandoned shapes scattered across a windswept concrete plateau under the threatening August skies. Works such as James Balmforth’s 'Failed Obelisk', a broken Cleopatra’s needle topped by a jagged block of stone bouncing on a metal spring, and Theo Turpin's 'Between You and I', a diving board hovering over a sky-facing mirror, plus assorted other black, shiny, municipal, and suspended objects, looked thoroughly at home in this brutalist space.

Whether or not they added anything to it is open to question. But it succeeded as one of those school-holiday public art events; boyfriends were photographing girlfriends and fathers photographing children in a way that suggested a thousand future Facebook uploads. We wandered around this post-apocalyptic playground, drinking in the illicit views of railway sidings, until the bitter breezes got too much and we began the descent.

Back down on the lower levels, we stumbled across a cluster of installations that left us suitably discombobulated: heaps of fabric that, caught out of the corner of your eye, looked like collapsed misshapen people; a smashed-up car under a canvas sheet with a note telling you not to look underneath it; maps and scale models of nothing real. Without the rooftop panorama, without a clear sense of direction, aware of strange shapes in the shadows, there was a growing sense of the ominous in this low-roofed and unforgiving space.

We left shivering and glad to return to the relative shelter and human scale at street level.

Bold Tendencies III, Monumental Sculpture Show (Hannah Barry gallery), Level 10, Peckham Rye multistorey car park, 95a Rye Lane, London SE15 4ST. 30 June – 30 September 2009