Monday, 23 May 2011

Hugh Miller, The Glasshouse Mill Series at The Old Truman Brewery

Having not been to East London for a few months I enjoyed weaving between the suits and skirts, the haircuts and have-nots, the frowns and furrows of Bishopsgate at 6 o’clock on a Thursday evening. I was on my way to see an exhibition I came upon by chance while aimlessly fluttering through twitter pages the previous lunchtime. It was towards Brick Lane, to be precise the Old Truman Brewery, but as to which part of the brewery I had no idea. The assemblage of buildings comprises nearly 250 businesses, and even though the area is already bustling and alive with energy it’s to undergo further redevelopment over the next couples of years as part of the ongoing Tower Hamlets Council City Fringe Area Action Plan (you’d have thought they would have come up with an acronym for that by now).

After heading inside the entrance by Vibe bar I was redirected by a helpful receptionist to Shop 14. The space was a strong-armed stone’s throw away, my path passing bottled beer imbibers and high pitched yells of Brazilian dance lessons. At this time of day it’s quite like an open air leisure centre for the good looking proletariat of EC1.

Welcomed by a pretty-skirted girl handing out glossy programmes I was immediately hit with the smell. The images I looked at online prior to going gave no sense of the sheer density of application. That oily hum hung thick in the air before gradually fading as the space filled up. I’d not been there for longer than five minutes before a bright eyed man appeared before me offering Prosecco from a small riveted plastic cup. On reflection I don’t recall it being empty the entire time I was there, the smiling student going about her business topping us all up with gusto. The crowd was a mix of friends and fans, the glamorous weekend supplement flickers with absent husbands and a friend to lean on after fizz-fuelled Waiter flirting, and pods of people who were well turned out and highly buffed seemed to make up the Glasshouse public.

 I was glad to have arrived early. Having emailed Hugh the day before I took it as an opportunity to say hello and speak briefly about the project before he had more important people to talk to. The soft handed handshake seemed somewhat strange considering his two and half year period of near isolation spent in the Yorkshire Dales, working daily across eighteen canvases simultaneously. You could tell he was proud of the work, and rightly so, and there was a real sense from him that the paintings evolved as he spent time working with them. The outcome was probably similar to what he planned, yet with numerous shifts and tweaks along the way.

In all, ten seasons were covered, and although when hung in order there would be a sense of chronology, Miller wanted to take his own direction with the curatorship by hanging the pieces depending more on their palette and how certain pictures complimented each other. It was only after talking to another bright eyed loquacious man (who was presumably part of the curatorial team) that I learnt of a different plan for the hang that didn’t take shape. The pieces looking up at the sky through the trees would be hung on the ceiling, the views looking up stream would be placed higher up the wall, and other images where the viewer is placed inside the picture would then be hung at eye level. You get the idea. It would have been a full 180 degree experience. Unfortunately the prohibitive logistics meant it simply wasn’t possible with the space available.

However, this is taking nothing away from how the show currently exists. Alive with animation, the conglomeration of colour and action give the entire space a sense of vitality. This is what painting in 2011 is to the dreamers. A nail on the head moment of materials, commitment, a marvellous eye and Duracell patience capturing moments in nature that are seen on occasions through life but rarely caught and committed to canvas. Combined, they formed a kind of kaleidoscopic wallpaper to what is usually a glass-walled building.

All eighteen pieces were untitled because to title them would be to lose the concept. There is an element of nostalgic joy of childhood memories running around those woods. You’re challenged by the fact that all eighteen pieces exist as a whole, yet you can’t help but be drawn to a couple that become your favourites. For me the two that fixed me were the view up the sun dappled river, and the Autumnal oranges looking skywards as if you were lying on your back amongst the leaves.

The ‘Spring Green’ as I will call it has you poised, looking up stream to a shimmering white line leading up the right hand side of the canvas. I suppose we’re all familiar with ‘action painting’, the drip techniques started in the fifties, but Miller fashions his technique by adorning it over a precisely made foundation of dark greens, cadmium yellows and white. It makes you want to dip your fingers in and smell the algae, while looking up to appreciate the luminous scattering of light above you in one swift movement. Likewise in the ‘Autumn Red’ the auburns and oranges of the maple-like leafs leave you tied, back-bound, wishing you got up earlier. Instead they leave you glaring at the gloom of the grey October sky. Applying thickly straight from the tube, carving and scraping and dabbing all convene into this wonderful impression of the woods and water around you.

Miller manages to elevate what could be lazily labelled as Impressionism by adding a sense of unpredictable woodland sound to the equation. Onomatopoeic words swim around your mind when looking at these pieces. Renoir and Seurat were capable of applying a beautifully tender touch to give a sense of nature’s fragility to urban landscapes, yet Miller has done the reverse in that he has recognised our heavy feet in these beautiful natural landscapes. He mentioned that he would use nearly £40 worth of paint to mix a palette for autumn, and still find himself using remnants of that palette as winter approached. It was as if his palette evolved alongside the seasons he was depicting. This is painting in action in the most literal sense. A superb project involving a relationship that developed between artist and landscape over ten colour saturated seasons. If you are a fan of paint you must see this.

Monday, 4 April 2011

New Decade @ Pop Up Gallery, Store Street

A never ending appeal of walking around central London is that it can take very few steps for you to find yourself somewhere much more pleasant or interesting than where you were only moments before. This became clear to me about five years ago when the agency I used to work for moved from its theatreland location of St Martin’s Lane, WC2H, to Whitfield Street, W1T. It was not a big move in distance but the change was significant in terms of realising what hives of social activity were buzzing around areas that would have largely been overlooked to someone who didn’t spend enough time there.

Whitfield Street is found in the northern part of Fitzrovia, an area bound in the north by Euston Road, by Oxford Street to the south, by Gower Street to the East and Great Portland Street to the west. It gets its name after one of my favourite pubs in the area, the Fitzroy Tavern. The drinks are cheap, it’s always busy, and when the weather is good I find it one of the most pleasing places to stand outside watching the world go by on Charlotte Street.

I was there the other day, late afternoon, the sun feebly trying to give me an excuse to put on the sunglasses that hadn’t been worn since Spain in August 2010. A private viewing was taking place on Store Street, across Tottenham Court Road but as I had an hour to kill I soaked up the atmosphere on the first Thursday evening since the clocks had gone forward and enjoyed a pint of Sovereign.

As mentioned in my previous review on The Orange Dot gallery there seems to be a growing sense that smaller galleries, whether of the pop up nature or not, are migrating further west than what has been found in the past. There must be a number of reasons why this is the case; lower costs for renting uninhabited commercial sites presumably being the most pertinent. Even the latest issue of GQ has stated how London’s art hub is on the move, relocating to Fitzrovia due to it being “smarter than Shoreditch and cheaper than Mayfair”. The piece in the issue explains how six galleries have recently opened in the area, four of which are based on Eastcastle Street - interesting and, more importantly, convenient stuff.

New Decade is a promising title for a show that promises new works by eight promising young artists. The Pop Up Gallery is a venture started by Nolan Browne last year, and this exhibition is one of many planned for 2011. What caught my attention initially was the manifesto that states “Nothing less than progressive work will be shown”, and that the galleries (which will appear in various regenerated locations around the city) “plan to make art even more accessible to others while filtering out the good from the great”. These are assertive words. These are words that made me want to go and see what this was all about.

Living Arrangements, Henry John, 2010
 Browne has been brave. Going with variety can sometimes be detrimental to a theme but if anything it gives the exhibition more gravitas in what he has tried to achieve with the title. Artists whose work exemplified this progressive tone were by Henry John and Will Martyr. The former’s obvious willingness to experiment with both technique and subject in his charming paintings and Martyr’s due to the candidness in which he taps into a clean lined, aspirational aesthetic which many visitors that night probably felt familiar and safe with.

Provider, Will Martyr, 2010
Living Arrangements is an example of how John’s interest in both form and depicting everyday life can exist so directly on one canvas. The composition is opened by the drapery at the top, displaying a room scattered with belongings and objects, yet when the shades of grey are considered, and the ochre hues of the chairs, wood and dog lying on the sofa matched up do you see this interplay between shape and form. It quickly becomes an abstract work. Other recent works of his that were not on show, particularly Spare Time And Snapshots, show us his quiet way of observing a scene and how everyday people exist in that space, yet they also show us his commitment to seeing the form and image as a whole. In contrast Martyr’s bright, arresting works of buildings with titles nodding vigorously to financial excess show a distinct lack of humanity, or any relationship with it other than the fact they involve places that we would like to inhabit. It’s a strange sort of idealism, reminiscent to Hockney’s idyllic scenes of 1960s Californian cool, which don’t necessarily hold a sense of subtlety or personality, yet strangely have that feeling of human presence.  
How To Spend It, Will Martyr, 2010
Humans are integral to the work of Benjamin Senior. I got talking to him at the show and quizzed him on whether or not his works reference the symmetry found in some of Pierro della Franceca’s frescoes and he said they did, although perhaps not as vehemently as I wanted them to. The everyday scenes of people jogging or dancing in woodlands and parks have an unnatural feel in the same way ‘natural’ scenes of past masters were made up of carefully crafted models. The soft palette and commitment to symmetry is what gives them this classical mood.

Equilibrium, Benjamin Senior, 2011

Hydra, Benjamin Senior, 2011
Madonna del Parto, Pierro della Francesca, 1457

Each artist in New Decade holds their own in what is a fun and optimistic show, and that is largely down to Browne’s curatorship expressing the progressive feel of his manifesto for the Pop Up Gallery. From Simone Rowat’s videos and photographs using food to create scenes more suited to an episode of Nature’s Great Events, to Katie Sims’ Poussin like landscapes blobbed with pretty colours, all the work reinforces the connecting themes of the exhibition; It’s a new decade with artists who don’t want to turn their back on the past but want to make use of it to help their development. 
Mountains And Mist, Simone Rowat, 2010(?)

Snake Pass, Katie Sims, 2011
Where we have lacked art of resonance and consideration in place of a quick sale in many small shows I’ve seen in the past, this one surprised me in the best possible way. The artists were talkative, the guests were smiling, there was support from friends and family of all ages and it made the event feel both slick and inclusive. The point of The Pepper Pot is to review smaller shows to help give artists and galleries exposure to a wider audience. It’s important that art, when being exhibited on this sort of scale, gets all the help it can get. This was a charming exhibition with a charming crowd, in a charming part of London that I would recommend you get to know better as new galleries (hopefully) begin to take hold.

New Decade runs until the 8th May 

Pop Up Gallery, 42 Store Street, WC1E 7DB

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Micheal De Feo @ The Orange Dot

What are flowers symbolic of? Beauty? Peace?

In literature or poetry or art maybe so, but in everyday life in London I suppose they are those things that you are more likely to see in decorative forms in shop windows, or pieces of design on a dress that that girl over there is wearing, or perhaps if you're lucky enough you may pass some spots of colour that line your zone 3 street.

Michael De Feo had fashioned a form of identity out of a flower. It is a sign that has become synonymous with his art. He has left them as signatures in various cities all over the world. It's a beautifully simple depiction of a flower that has five petals and a stem with a slight kink. It's a signature to be envious of.

For someone who was holding his first solo exhibition in London, an overdue occasion for an artist who has been daubing the streets with his work for eighteen years, I wonder if he was pleased with the outcome. The Orange Dot gallery is a small creative space found in Tavistock Place, a somewhat unlikely location considering these sorts of places are more commonly found further east. Russell Square is not an area associated with artists or a necessarily established artistic identity, but the gallery seems at home on the small parade of shops where it lives. I visited when it first opened last summer (back when this blog was new and I was enthusiastic and envisaged making entries daily) and what was then a project now seems to have transformed into a professional place to exhibit work.

I was hoping to see more of De Feo's brooding, battle-scarred portraits. The ones where the paint is dripping, the features ignored, and the mood is bleak. Instead the left hand wall of the room was lined with his flowers. Most were an edition of a series, the rest of them presumably being elsewhere, made using differing printing techniques and materials. The space is small though, and there is only so many times you can survey a wall of 8 hanging flowers and feel drawn. The costs of each piece varied wildly, with one on the facing wall costing almost double if sold framed. There was a single abstract portrait, of the series where he used maps as the canvas, and another self portrait towards the back of the room where the two girls were serving beers into plastic cups.

Was it more of a sales show? Most pieces had prices, with a couple having the obligatory 'sold' signs next to them. I stood around in the small space, looking for a friendly face to talk to. The one fraught looking guy I did have a brief chat to was a sculptor, and even he asked me if I was going to buy anything. The other people who filled the room were tall and edgy, who seemed to look at each rather than the work on the walls. After spending around half an hour in there I couldn't shake the feeling of being in a hip youth club where anyone was allowed on the decks as long as they played early 90s hip hop. Let's face it this is what many of these sorts of shows entail; standing and talking, looking and snapping on one's SLR. The art is secondary and that is not unusual. The frustrating thing was it was a combination of an oblivious collection of people, not the best of De Feo's work on show, and most importantly not enough of it. The Orange Dot is more than just a gallery and it's always good to see small organisations acting progressively and getting people involved. The gallery is a great little space that could be used in a range of ways, but it was one of those evenings that the work on show felt a little neglected.

Looking forward to seeing what comes next

Michael De Feo: Coming In From The Outside

54 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RG