The Other Wave: Contemporary Chinese Photography @ Ben Brown Fine Arts

Head down the hidden and somewhat secluded Brook’s Mews in London’s West End and you will find the delightfully understated Ben Brown Fine Arts Gallery, hidden in a quant basement below street level. On display are contemporary works by Chinese photographers including Chen Wei, Cheng Ran, Jiang Pengyi and Ye Linghan with their pieces taking on various styles and trends of photography and video art.

In the 1980s in China the term ‘The New Wave’ was coined to describe an avant-garde art movement in which documentary photography played a central role, now, in the present day, contemporary art in China is being dominated by photography and video art more than ever. This domination however seems to have been missed and overlooked by the Western World making this exhibition the perfect time for the art public to acquaint itself with the imagery that these photographers are creating right now. These photographers are demanding to be heard in the wake of their high profile painting peers who have in recent years shattered auction results.

Archival ink jet print 120 x 150 cm; (47 1/4 x 59 1/8 in.)

The exhibition collects together four photographers whose work range in subject matter. Images range from the bleak, isolated and abandoned to heady, crowded areas that are both fun to look at yet alienating at the same time. Chen Wei’s work depicts elaborate scenes constructed of found materials choreographed into a surreal studio setting. Tackling isolating and abandoned scenes that reek of dystopia, Wei presents imagery that is challenging and uncomfortable. In his File Clerk photograph a man walks alone along a concrete walkway in the middle of an expanse of dark water and mist, in another piece, Anonymous Station  he highlights his taste for abandoned, forgotten and eerie spaces which seems to be a recurring theme within his imagery. Other pieces by the photographer highlight alienation in a city setting, in the photograph titled Countless Unpredictable Stand No. 1, a male stands alone above a city landscape creating a sense of wonder and loneliness at once within this dense concrete environment where no one else can be seen except for one solitary character.

Archival ink jet print 100 x 150 cm; (39 3/8 x 59 1/8 in.)

Ye Linghan photographs and video based works link the past to collective histories. Linghan’s work on display defies focus to the individual and instead makes the scene and setting prominent. Blurring details with the haze of memory, the viewer projects their own thoughts, feelings and memories on to the piece.

C-print 5 panels; 60 x 80 cm; (23 5/8 x 31 1/2 in.) each

Third artist on display, Cheng Ran dramatically stages his work which creates a romantic feeling within his pieces. Collected from different bodies of work, his pieces act as a short retrospective of the young photographer’s work. His work is rich in cinematic quality with a strong narrative running throughout, particularly the barren and destitute images of Hollywood. These images highlight how Hollywood has played such a key role in the shaping of American as well as the rest of the Western World’s identity and how it all seems a bit empty. These images are stark and fascinating due to the editing of the photographs which questions the physical beauty of Hollywood. This questioning is further highlighted by his piece The Still of Unknown Film where a hundred dollar bill is lit, perhaps this is where Western obsession with money and Hollywood is heading, up in smoke.

Luster ink print 104.5 x 178 cm; (41 1/8 x 70 1/8 in.)

Last but not least is photographer Jiang Pengyi who highlights the destructive force of rapid urbanization, redevelopment and demolition that has overwhelmed Beijing. In his photographs he creates imagined miniature cityscapes and skyscrapers within real decaying domestic spaces, highlighting beautifully the destructive power that massive urbanization is having on the lived environments of the Chinese people. These photographs were my personal favourite due to their incredible detail but also due to the issues that they highlight. The images up close are astounding.

Ultra Giclée print 90 x 125.4 cm; (35 3/8 x 49 3/8 in.)

This show, whilst small, is a definite must see. It highlights all too well the stark realizations of our urbanized consumer based culture and how it is both destructive and alienating to our lived environments and to our personal lives. If this show is anything to go by, I predict that these photographers will be enjoying the same levels of success as their painting peers very soon.

The Other Wave: Contemporary Chinese Photography @ Ben Brown Fine Arts – runs until 29th January 2012

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Gesamptkunstwerk @ Saatchi Gallery

Charles Saatchi has collected and exhibited artists in his super rich King’s Road palatial gallery from across the pond, from China, India, various countries of the Middle East, Britain as well as many more. He has now turned his spotlight on to Germany. Currently in his impressive Gallery 24 artists, all based in Germany and aged between 31 and 64, take over the walls and spaces and demand attention.

Whilst the Tate has enjoyed notorious German artist Gerhard Richter over the Winter period, Saatchi (who collected Richter long ago) has on display his collection of the best and latest work that is exploding out of the country right now.

Mixed Media and Concrete 2010, Various Sizes

The rooms of the Gallery are cluttered with pieces that range in the media they are produced in. Within the same rooms sculpture stands in front and around paintings in a chaotic display that is both overpowering and intriguing at the same time. This can seem just a bit too much to take in. The rooms can feel claustrophobic and tight as the scales of the pieces dominate.

The title of the exhibition is Gesamptkunstwerk roughly translated as ‘total artwork’ and was originally used by Richard Wagner in his 1849 essay, ‘Artwork and the Future’. The term refers to a ‘complete artwork’ that brings different art forms together to create a whole. This title is at odds with the exhibition as most pieces are stand alone and seperate relating with each other on a minimal scale. The title seems to have been chosen simply because it is an art term (which has regularly been associated with architecture) and happens to be in the German language. Target language, yes, target meaning, not really. The only artist who seems to achieve some form of Gesamptkunstwerk in the traditional sense of the term is Markus Selg whose display encompasses sculpture, painting, furniture and prints all at the same time.

2010, Sublimation print on fabric 195 x 260 cm

Anyway, enough pedantic-ness over the exhibitions title and on to the works on display. The work exhibited has no clear running theme or style. The only thing that links these artists together is simply the fact they all work in Germany. Whilst this suggests a lack of clear direction for Germany’s emerging Contemporary Art due to a lack of unifyng style this isn’t all bad because it also highlights its incredible diversity.

Paintings fill the enormous walls with ease whilst sculptures stretch across the rooms as if trying to hit every point inside the gallery. The overarching theme therefore seems to be one of beautiful chaos and incredible large scale. Each piece seems to want to shout at you and gain your attention in the loudest possible voice.

Works are put together from bits and pieces of just about anything, from lashings of paint to cans and plastic bags. Materials range from those traditionally associated with art to complete non-art materials. This creates a diverse range of art from painterly abstract to the more obscure pieces formed with the likes of concrete.

Many pieces also take an undeniable inspiration from Modern masters. It is clear to see Giacometti in the works of Georg Herold. Instead of earthy tones however, Herold has used bold colours and poses more akin to the work of Henry Moore.

Batten, canvas, lacquer, thread and screws, 120 x 420 x 165 cm

Twin brothers Gert and Uwe, who have worked together since 2001, take up part of the gallery with their bold and exciting pieces that infuse a sense of surrealism with the bright colours of Miro. Colour and paint meet again in the other Gallery rooms in the artworks of Andre Butzer. Since the 1980s, Saatchi has had a penchant for action painting with a taste for pieces with thick lashings of paint. Here, with this artist, his desires seem to be satisfied. Butzer’s work is bright bold and resembles 1980’s cartoon style graffiti.

Woodcut on paper on canvas, 4 panels, overall dimensions: 200 x 1,200 cm

My personal favorite artist was Isa Genzken. Her pieces collect all the tat of everyday life and manipulate it together to form sculptures that are unnerving and disturbing. By making totems of everyday objects she plays with our propensity to attach symbolism to the most banal things.

Plastic, lacquer, mirror foil, glass, metal, wood, fabric 220 x 60 x 100 cm

Her work is mainly three-dimensional but it also encompasses photography, video and collage. Her crude sculptures are attractive due to the way she has defiled the original safe pieces and put them together to make monstrous totems. She has in this way made the most banal, cheap and mass produced objects into something that is truly unique in the form of her garish sculptures.

Whilst this exhibition may well be chaotic and lack a running theme, it is worth having a look. Germany’s economy may be in ruin with dark days ahead but its Art appears to be alive, well and full of the most boldest colours and ideas possible.

 

Gesampkunstwerk: New Art From Germany @ Saatchi Gallery, runs until 30th April 2012

Mystery of Appearance @ Haunch of Venison

Head down to the Haunch of Venison this January and you are in for a treat. Currently in their New Bond Street Gallery they have on display ‘Mystery of Appearance: Conversations between ten British post-war painters.’ This exhibition is essentially a who’s who of post Second World War British artists. The exhibition explores the artists’ works and how they link with one another. Artists on display include Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Caulfield, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff, Euan Uglow and Francis Bacon.

Oil on canvas 197.8 x 137.4 cm

The exhibition features large and small scale pieces which focus on the artists’ varied approach to paint and subject matter and the connections between their work. The title of ‘Mystery of Appearance’ comes from a statement by the most celebrated of this group, Francis Bacon: “To me, the mystery of painting today is how can appearance be made”.

These artists are celebrated in this exhibition because they rebelled against the then current appeal of abstract painting that dominated in the mid twentieth century and instead focused their attention on reviving portraiture and landscape painting.

The show takes over four of the spaces in the new Haunch of Venison space. In the first gallery the visitor is confronted by nudes by Auerbach, Coldstream, Hamilton, Uglow and a portrait of Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud. Artworks range from painstakingly detailed to more simple abstracted nudes in this room. The piece by Freud for example appears to be a simple pencil and charcoal study of his old friend Bacon. All pieces involve singular people, people in rooms, models and the artists themselves.

In the next room paintings are presented featuring landscapes and portraiture which demonstrate the group’s experimentation with the materiality of paint.

The exhibition carries on to show the significance of Old Masters’ work in the new works on display. This section of the gallery presents pieces that directly refer to an Old Master painting or to a museum object. Notably Francis Bacon’s haunting Pope I can be seen which he painted after the Spanish Painter Diego Velazquez. This painting by Bacon grips the viewer as soon as they walk into the room. I have always been fascinated with his Pope series. It made me think back to his fabulous retrospective at the Tate in 2008. Close by Uglow’s Massacre of the Innocents a rendition of the original by Nicolas Poussin hangs despite its small scale it demands the audience’s attention.

Oil on canvas, laid on panel

In the upstairs gallery pieces Patrick Caulfield’s pop style can be seen in his Coloured Still Life 1967 whilst there are extensively detailed pieces opposite featuring many characters in the likes of Michael Andrews piece with each individual screaming for attention making it difficult to focus on one part of the image. Next to this piece a large scale image of a naked male on a bed by David Hockney is presented with its dominating bright greens and blues taking up a large proportion of the gallery space. It is difficult to see a conversation between these pieces and it is unclear the reasoning for this layout.

Acrylic on board 56 x 89 cm

Oil and silkscreen on turaphot linen on canvas 213.3 x 213.3 cm

The exhibition aims to link all these artists together, yet the exhibition’s loose, discursive structure also suggests that the group sometimes know as “The School of London” (a term coined by R.B Kitaj in the late 1970s to refer to the figurative trend in British painting) were never really a group in the first place, but instead they were a disparate gang of individuals joined by the common ambition to create art rooted in the texture of everyday life. Each piece seems so distinct that it is hard to imagine them as one solid group. Where obvious relationships in the history of art can be seen in the styles of the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque for example, within this exhibition, such obvious links cannot be seen.

Paintings in this show seem to have been chosen to stress each individual artist’s unique style rather finding a thread that unites them together as a solid group. However, on leaving the gallery it is difficult to separate the pieces from each other. This exhibition allows the audience to credit each artist individually as well as part of a group. It shows how diverse post-War British art was yet at the same time how the artists have been linked together by their close personal relationships. There is a sense of the work of these ten artists being linked together if not visibly, at least spiritually.

This exhibition is great because it shows the importance of British artists, especially as only three of the displayed artists are still alive. This exhibition is  perfect opportunity to see Great British art and is a welcome opportunity for those excited to see Lucian Freud’s exhibition at the Portrait Gallery and David Hockney at the Royal Academy to whet their appetites.

Mystery of Appearance: Conversations between ten British post-war painters @ Haunch of Venison, New Bond Street runs until 18th February 2012

Annie Leibovitz takes a Pilgrimage @ Hamiltons Gallery

Head down the West End and you will find a whole host of galleries attempting to entice you in with high profile art shows in grand spaces that seem to offer limitless light. You will not find this at Hamiltons Gallery however. Located at Carlos Place, the gallery is in an area that is surrounded by other established galleries including the Halcyon Gallery, a branch of the Haunch of Venison and the Timothy Taylor Gallery.

What marks the Hamiltons Gallery out from these other more showier galleries is that if you did not know where it was, you would completely miss it, it is hidden in between pillars with darkened windows. I found that I actually walked straight past it and was unsure, even once I had found the building, if I did in fact have the correct address.

Entering the gallery I found it incredibly dark. When you enter you descend a staircase to get into the main space. The Gallery is large and this surprised me due to the fact that from the outside, the gallery did not look like it would be very big at all.

The show on display was that of legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, the show being titled ‘Pilgrimage’. In this show Leibovitz has not been on a complete pilgrimage as such, she has photographed Niagra Falls, but while she has photographed this sort of landmark she has also ventured into the objects and possessions of the dead. She has photographed in loving detail objects belonging to Abraham Lincoln including the hat and gloves he wore the night he was assassinated, Sigmund Freud’s rug draped couch and the King of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley’s motorcycle and television.

Producing this body of work was for Leibovitz herself. She had no motive and was not on assignment. This makes the work so much more personal than her commissioned work, it gives an insight in to what appeals to her and I believe, creates a strong connection between viewer and artist. This project is also Leibovitz’s first purely digital project. It also special because she has stepped away from taking portrait photographs of celebrities, in these images she seems to have unlocked something more personal that is hidden away from the public glare.

The project reminded me of a Facebook album, one where a user has been on holiday, visited a few galleries and now wants to show their friends their amazing trip. However, unlike Facebook albums I felt like I made a genuine connection with her photographs. There is a hidden power within them that is highly attractive and alluring. There is something ghostly within the images. Perhaps it is Leibovitz lurking within them, or perhaps it is her subjects. The objects have so much character within that even though they are not being used; there is still something of their owner within them. It almost feels like a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the owner.

It is odd because you realise whilst seeing this show how much of someone’s personality can be conveyed through personal objects. Freud’s couch for example is something we will always associate with the psychologist and I felt the Motorcycle just embodied the spirit of Elvis, both being icons of rebellion. It was as if both were in the images without being physically visible.

This exhibition is great if you are interested in how objects form people’s identities and how people become recognisable by the objects they own. It is also great if you are a fan of Leibovitz because this is a truly personal project for her.

Check this exhibition out in the New Year.

Have a very Merry Christmas Guys!

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage @ Hamiltons – 8th December 2011 – 20th January 2012