Imperturbable from afar, a swarm of soft black markings nesting at the base of wide spaces above, the canvasses of Chinese artist Lu Chao reveal, upon closer inspection, troubled narratives of struggle and torment. Tiny figures, in a multitude of gesture and motion, teem, teeter and crowd along the edge of gaping holes in inexorable thrall to magnetic pockets of apocalyptic oblivion, awaiting some transformative occasion, or gather in ritualistic fervour at sites of momentously descending cosmological events; others get swept up in calamity, become components and playthings in brutal consumerist systems (in one macabre instance, crowds are displayed as tiers of densely packed cupcakes ready for consumption), are subject matter of social and scientific experiments, tread precariously along thin ropes controlled by unseen authority, or stand in stupefied, incomprehensible, enshrined contemplation and awe of themselves. Columns representative of any number of eras of architectural history are adorned in a swirl of physiognomies. Pastoral landscapes, the interior of a cathedral (wrought with dizzying dimension) subsume the human element, the scale and power (both natural and religious) casting the human into a stunned, pained insignificance. Gently fraught issues of social engineering, identity politics, the fight against the collective, float with a disarming buoyant unease throughout the imagery. Lu Chao’s monochromatic frames are magnificently detailed, crafted scenarios of disruption and anxiety, of an existence lived at the precipice, one step away from the abyss. As sober and severe of investigations as they are, Lu Chao folds in a liberatingly bizarre existential humour that prevents the pieces from collapsing into turgid, laborious oppression (this is not the heavy squall of a Goya). The few instances of colour elicit an almost slickly lascivious pop amidst the otherwise muted frames. Lu Chao manages to leap out of specific cultural references to embrace an universal psychological malaise, a sense of being eternally lost in the vastness of the cosmos, a satisfying answer to essential questions of existence perpetually, achingly just out of reach, a human population eternally bewildered and perplexed by enduring mysteries, aimless despite achievements-mere motes. Black Dots closed on 11 May
Architect Sir John Soane’s London residence in Lincoln’s Inn Fields has long been established as a notable city landmark, a museum devoted to its owner’s extensive collection of antiquities and paintings. Unbeknownst to me, he also owned and partially rebuilt (circa 1800-04) a property in then-rural Ealing (yes, Ealing at one time was considered countryside!) for purposes of family retreat and the entertainment of clients and influential friends, ably staging elaborate dinners and garden parties for their delight. Soane sold the house in 1810, and through the rest of the century it changed hands several times, until the council acquired the land at the turn of the 20th century. In 1939, in the space formerly occupied by Soane’s kitchen block, a local lending library was established, operating until the mid 1980’s. Now, following a three-year closure and a £12 investment, the property has been painstakingly restored to its original design (including a comprehensive rebuild of a conservatory demolished in 1901, and a careful reinstatement of paint and wallpaper schemes), as well as an overhaul of what was the library into a full-service gallery space, which will host three exhibitions per year, a mix of artists, designers and architects who will present work centred around and elaborating upon Soane’s own conceptual philosophies and preoccupations. Its inaugural show is devoted to Anish Kapoor, whose felicitous investigations into the distorted play of concave mirrors, the funhouse upheavals of form and space, comment on Soane’s own use of mirrors within his property to both elongate, enlarge, heighten, deepen and collapse both space and light. Although classical in exterior, Soane’s house is full of modernist touches, reveals a warm use of illumination and natural light, and illustrates a fine sensibility for the properties of wood and its genial effects upon the spirit. Even the grandest rooms of the home retain a human scale, feeling cosy rather than chilly and intimidating-a true civility. Outside the manor are the green sprawling grounds of Walpole Park, a most magnificent back garden indeed. The refurbishment includes both a cafe and proper restaurant.
While in Ealing, I highly recommend a walk about the area, the streets just off the main thoroughfare from Ealing Broadway Station offering a relaxed village feel. A plethora of attractive independent cafes and restaurants could keep you busy for days, more than inspiring a return visit. I had a lovely homemade soup from Tiramisu, a charming corner restaurant run by a friendly Italian couple, and sampled the flavoursome snacks from the tiny (walk-in only) Japanese bakery Tetote Factory, sweet/savoury baked buns bursting with inspired ingredients (I opted for the improbable potato salad). The Acton/Ealing area is home to a sizeable Asian population, thus a preponderance of business and retail devoted to Japanese goods.
The Electric Coffee Company is a sophisticated haven in the heave just off the station, and my list is considerable for the future, as I passed by many an appetising spot but no room left in my belly-Burnt Norton, Cafe Zee, Maryam’s Kitchen (cute, cosy Persian), Santa Maria for a traditional Neapolitan pizza. Even the High Street was an intriguing mix of franchise and pop-up alternative (including a chic hippie shop).
A walk slightly afield brought me to the doorstep of the Pitshanger Bakery, the window of which was offering tantalising freshly baked pastries, and just down the road on Northfield Avenue is home to London’s oldest allotments, dating back to 1832, much reduced from their original twenty acre dimensions, but still quite impressive, now officially recognised as an asset of community value.
All these “pastoral”sights exist just at the end of the District Line, but you feel truly far from London-a quick and cheap day out. Promenade already. Anish Kapoor runs through 18 August. Please see my Instagram for video footage of the exhibition.
In an era dominated by the click, swipe and scroll, fractured attention distorted to the most cursory glance, this new exhibition insistently demands a certain rigour of observation and attentiveness to each work, a close, abiding engagement slowly undressing layer after layer of meaning and intent. Many of the pieces reflect on their own process of creation-a fair few excitedly exploit the sensuality of texture, inviting a keen, woozy, nearly illicit interest, a canvas of colours, shapes, sinuous movement whipping up to wild abandonment (Alexis Harding, of this I find you especially guilty-even his fairly tame cosmological studies are a lush, twisting, cuddling embrace of black and greyish white). The compact frames of Donal Moloney inversely contain a multitudinous convulsion of intricate ephemera, a hurl of narratives both natural and fantastical raging and colliding, an imagination split wide in multivalent surge; Antoine Langenieux-Villard’s ravaged frames, torn, slit, overlaid-exhaustivelyworked-pulse with tension, an unsettled confusion and conflict between start and finish, the certainty of the order of construction remaining troublingly hidden and unresolved. The collaborative, “exquisite corpse”-like works of Sarah Kate Wilson, made in concert with members of the public, are shrink-wrapped emotional curations, each item contributed a significant individual remembrance of a past event or conversation revealed through a profusion (and diffusion) of objects, artist and subjects inextricably linked in a manufactured rapture, packaged and “shipped” for spectacle; Jim Cheatle, Peter Lamb and Alison Goodyear, in various disciplines, dimensionally reference and reproduce and rework elements from previous (or the same) works-or from their physical environments-directly onto their work, Cheatle most explicitly investigating the gap between “flat” simulation and the flagrantly genuine, topping his frames with egregiously present, lusciously glistening pastel swirls and globules impossible to evade. All the artists direct attention inwards, through the frame, to all levels of context, allowing the viewer to apprehend the full weight of the image, a clear rebuke to the facile churn of consumption of the digital age, reasserting the supremacy of a physical, material interaction. Of course, I’m well aware the photos accompanying this post are no substitution for a real, in-person communication with the works, where their complexities truly manifest. Substantifs continues through 27 April
In a concentrated performance that would tax the stamina of the youngest performer (much less an octogenarian national treasure), Dame Maggie Smith serves a masterclass of technique and straightforward charisma. In a 100-minute continuous monologue, each stammer, hesitation and ruminative halt precisely placed, Smith sifts through the troubled memories of Brunhilde Pomsel, ordinary German citizen who rose from humble beginnings through to having a (literal, at one stage) seat at the heart of the Nazi regime when she is assigned as secretary to Joseph Goebbels. While insisting she had no greater knowledge of the catastrophe unfolding around her, Smith reveals the fine fractures of consciousness-if Pomsel is guilty of any sort of collaboration, it was in youthfully genuflecting to a particular glamour, thrill and financial reward of being in the presence of powerfully influential figures, all too easy to engage in a wilfull disregard of the more unsavoury aspects surrounding her service.
As she continues to justify and rationalise and draw the audience into her confession, imperceptibly the stage moves closer to the crowd, the modest furnishings of her retirement flat receding, Pomsel increasingly caught in a tight, dimming light, possibly damned (as she denounces the diminishments of mortality, for a moment it is impossible to separate performer from character), or at least psychologically trapped (especially in her inescapable betrayals of a Jewish friend from youth and a former employer who treated her well). Arguments collapse into outright evasions. Pointedly, Pomsel mentions with the accumulated and well-documented tragedies of history, such events would be unable to occur today in such scale or fury, a statement which was met with appalled laughter, a recognition that indeed they still ensue, despite a well-informed global culture.
Pomsel never moves from her armchair, but Smith keeps us mesmerised throughout, reminding us that sometimes “just doing my job” has tremendous moral consequences. A German Life continues through 11 May-the run is entirely sold-out, but day return tickets are available daily
The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens @ Unicorn Theatre
This absurdist hour-long piece conceptualised for children would improbably earn the respect of such existential luminaries as Beckett and Sartre, who would no doubt appreciate its playfully gentle but frank investigations into spiritual, physical and temporal anxieties, the exhaustive, bewildered search for meaning in a swell of nothingness, the alarm that even information may not sufficiently provide answer. An officious, glowering black-suited security guard closes up the stage, informing the audience that nothing will be happening, walking off, daringly leaving the stage silent for a suspended time until a performer eventually attempts to open the locked door, ready to begin his act. His efforts to access the stage become increasingly desperate, motivating the security guard to return to address the disruption, setting into play an antagonistic, ultimately co-operative relationship.
Conceptually complex philosophies are rampant, dressed up as frantic fun, kids responding on a primal level (the creators generously assume that kids can grapple intellectually with issues without resorting to the pedantic). Stating the impossibility of nothing happening, when there exists a constant possibility of something happening, is the key narrative drive-as the characters get enmeshed in personal, looped agonies of defeat, grief, pity, fear, impatience (lamenting “dead” moments, flailing around waiting for the “next” moment) , the children in the seats encouragingly shout out suggestions and advice, admonishing them to simply get on with it. Unlike the characters on stage, who search for some sense of linearity or purpose, kids are uniquely qualified to see the world as a collection of simultaneously exciting, wicked, revealing, nonsensical moments, a march of stimulating, stupefying ephemera, that seemingly inconsequential actions can have their own mad design. Nigel Barrett is deadpan ominous perfection as the security guard, and Riad L Richie is just the right side of floridly ripe as the serious “artiste”.
The kids at the performance I attended were vividly engaged, and the final release of the “happenings” across the stage, so long heaving against the door, was a liberation, an assurance that one may contend with a multitudinous onslaught, break it down into a series of smaller concerns. The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens continues through 28 April at Unicorn Theatre
How to reconcile the traditional musical’s need for the effervescent, its insistence on the upbeat (we are not in Sondheim territory here) with the scabrous candour of the acclaimed indie film on which this property is based? By locating and isolating the sweet and sentimental heart that always lay at the centre of the original material, and softening, but not altogether excising, the mordant aspects of character and situation. The main focus is a harried and last-minute family road trip to deliver aspiring daughter Olive to a beauty pageant, a go-for-broke journey around which a battery of personal strife spirals-debt, depression, attempted suicide, sickness, marital discord, dying dreams-all of which are referenced, if not profoundly explored, in this fast-paced, efficient production.
Stage floor and walls are plastered in a road-atlas pattern, signalling the significance of the voyage in the family’s destiny- a few screens and neon signs are effectively placed on a tight stage to suggest stops along the way, the car a series of chairs upon a trolly that folds in and out of the action. After the character set-up of the first half (in which nearly every family member is granted a brief moment to define him/herself), the second act barrels along on a macabre whimsy that culminates in the comedic frenzy and melodrama of the pageant, situations progressively more and more unhinged while inversely bringing the family closer together.
Laura Pitt-Pulford, possessing the strongest voice on stage, is the most astutely effective in reaching into the depths of her character’s anguish; Gary Wilmot is bracingly ribald as unregenerate grandpa; and Imelda Warren-Green is a comic force in two small roles, milking every last humourous ounce out of a constipated hospital bureaucrat and a diva-ish former pageant winner, now over-the-top presenter. The production is certainly colourful, charismatic and full of entertainingly disheveled life, but oftentimes to the detriment of full emotional immersion in the family’s many crises and heartbreaks. Little Miss Sunshine continues through 11 May
This virtual reality work devised by celebrated sculptor Antony Gormley in collaboration with Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan (of NASA) sweeps a viewer from the beachfront of a tropical island through the outer reaches of the atmosphere into an asteroid belt and straight onto the surface of the moon, before catapulting a user directly into the annihilating path of the sun, flares snaking off its blinding orb, an all-consuming image of white concluding the experience. I’m fairly certain there is nothing much profound to uncover philosophically or conceptually from the work-it exists mainly as an avenue towards heightened sensation, using the first-person aesthetic of gaming culture as its base.
The simulations are produced using geometric data from NASA models, lending the environments a sweep and detail and expanse especially striking to the spirit. As much as Gormley’s preoccupations are with the (static) body and its materiality in space, as a place or location of matter , I can see the curiosity and challenge for him offered by this new technology, in which a creator must guide a disembodied user through a series of limitless spaces while achieving the sensation of body. Absent of his foundational, explicit element, he must rather suggest the subjective conscious in its movement (velocity) through space and time, the driving environment dictating definition.
Quite beyond all this theoretical notation, what I will remember most (in the moments each participant is allowed to roam freely via controller before being whisked off to the next level) is a frolic along the waterfront up into the lush vegetation of the tropical island, rotating around the circumference of the Earth as it recedes, and bouncing happily along a crater’s edge in zero gravity, lifting off in flight soaring meditatively above the barren moonscape in a sacred, silent covenant. You are encouraged by your “attendant” to decompress in a lounge before venturing home, as perceptions may have been impaired-I confess to remaining a bit woozy following disembarkment. LUNATICK continues through 25 May
In contrast to the relatively sedate works Bowman contributed to the Getting Away! exhibition at Arthouse1 last year (which she also curated)-abstracted studies of sea and shore filtered through a lens of unsentimentalised memory, in which the greatest (genial) threat was that of overcast day and possible storm-the new pieces comprising this show in the West End churn and roil with a turbulent, dark undertow, tremendously unsettled and restless, awash with disruption. Conflicts and collisions of colours abound throughout each canvas, whirls, swirls, whips and whorls of orange and white marauding across the frame like hurricane systems. The sea is bothered, a plague of squall, plight and peril, etched with scratches, aggressive squiggle patterns, unbounded drips of paint, unyielding blocks of hue. Corrosion and toxicity have embedded within the environment. As one element of the imagery, per Bowman’s objective, is to interrogate the idea of the sea and coast as locus of border and belonging, it’s impossible not to sense in the visual chaos the ongoing migrancy crisis and concomitant treacherous, desperate, sometimes fatal, sea journeys undertaken. The softer colours of the two Plashy Place studies (and Diversion 1) provide essential playful, innocent relief for the eyes, brief breezy beats of breath and reflection set apart from the surrounding clash and clamour. As merciless, unsparing and tumultuous as the sea, these are thrillingly, poetically active and alive works informed by a very expressively astute consciousness of turmoil, their very creation a feat of getting through. You will be shaken and stirred. Tearing Up The Rule Book continues through 13 April
Steeped in the aesthetic lore of folk art, advertising, comic books-especially underground comix-poster art, graffiti and found material, this hallowed (but overlooked) group of alumni and teachers from Chicago’s Art Institute gathered together in the latter stages of the 60’s to establish a loose school of work that resonated with broader national movements (Pop Art blasts from either American coast, conceptualist critiques of an emerging consumerist society) while managing to locate distinctive personal aspects of its own. Colours are bold and brash, irreverent imagery abounds, all wrapped in a sense of play that is wildly liberating and go-for-broke, instrumental instructors generously including non-Western and outsider artists into their syllabi-and straight into their students’ artistic souls. Much of the work radiates with a boisterous DIY-ethos (the self-made posters created for their various exhibitions are a brilliant expressive species unto themselves), a sense of fun and experiment contagious, spilling across several disciplines, from painting to sculpture to drawing to publications to film to ephemera. Unlike many of its contemporaneous fellow circles, in which the dominant paradigm was that of a white male braggadocio with women sidelined or entirely erased from the conversation, the Imagists operated with an unemphatic gender parity, a casual appreciation for both female member and teacher. They often exhibited under droll, impertinent collective names such as Hairy Who, Nonplussed Some, the False Image and Marriage Chicago Style, contravening against the pomposity and strenuous whimsy of the larger schools (in comparison, much of this work appears positively serene and composed even within its own mania). Christina Ramberg reclaims kink and fetish imagery, transmuting it into a study of female construction, a Bettie Page directing her own story, panelled narratives told in detailed close-ups; Ed Paschke’s canvasses are awash in wanton, lurid, acidhouse colours, his figures in repose post-apocalypse; Jim Nutt’s plexiglass subjects, with their unnerving enamel sheen, break down/blow out to pustular extremes, sum totals of effluvia and bodily discharge, sometimes with a sharp political edge (see Officer E. Doodit); Gladys Nilsson’s and Karl Wirsum’s frames explode with vibrant nightmarish individuals, the psychedelic frenzy of movement and velocity warping coherency of body-the same for Barbara Rossi’s tangled, swirling masses of amorphosity; Ed Flood presents elegantly layered, dimensional plexiglass cabinets of squiggly dispersed lines and curves that suggest fantastical undersea or forest environments. Roger Brown provides the most meditative pieces: deco-ish, visually tidy renderings of landscapes, buildings and people that pulse with pockets of mystery and shadow and private acts. His architecturally tribal Mask For A Waitress is both armor and straitjacket, evoking the weight of servitude. Nilsson provides one of the softer images, as well, a black-and-white illustrated beach idyll of a group of similarly attired women (and the odd glamorous animal friend!) enjoying a day out. I must admit my shame in never having heard of the Imagists despite living in Chicago for many years, and I am very happy indeed for this opportunity to belatedly make their acquaintance-the sheer energy, verve and joy emanating from the works is impossible to resist. Warhol may have had the monopoly on media attention and notoriety, but Chicago in its own modest, possibly more sensible and breezy way, hosted its own version of the Factory (and it isn’t a great stetch of imagination to envision a young Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat happening upon the work of a few of these artists and finding their spirits enflamed). Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70’s runs through 26 May