What I saw at Frieze Art Fair…

It undermines the image of an expensive, glamorous and international contemporary art  showcase when the first exhibit one’s eyes alight on is a garishly colourful children’s playground.  Complete with children (it was a Saturday), who sensibly decided to overlook any ‘high art’ connotations and use it as it seemed to demand.  The Gagosian’s thought process in commissioning Carsten Holler to produce such an aesthetic affront is hard to fathom; I put it down as usual to ‘shock tactics’ – which are harder than ever to pull off in this world of social media enhanced exhibitionism.

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IMG_2699The White Cube stand was reassuringly populated by all the names one expected to see: Damien Hirst, playing with zips and razor blades, an Anthony Gormley robotic wire sculpture… And this rather beautiful porcelain mash-up of classical sculpture on a broken plinth by Rachel Kneebone (above & left), which may have been the only exhibit to win over my flitting attention span for whole minutes as I peered, trying to make out the tangle of contorted limbs.  It was Ancient Greece by way of Louise Bourgeois, on a delicate Rococo scale.

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And talking of Louise Bourgeois, there was an exquisitely sculpted life-size figure by the artist on Hauser & Wirth’s stand – emaciated, with back arched as if undergoing electro-therapy on the thin striped mattress (right).  The stand, curated by Mark Wallinger, was entitled ‘A Study in Red and Green’, a take on Sigmund Freud’s study in Hampstead.  Regardless of this fact (which I was unaware of at the time) the curatorial attention to detail – from the carpets and furnishings to the brightly painted walls and choice of closely packed works of art – made of the stand a superb mini-exhibition in its own right.

IMG_2707Other personal highlights included Pablo Bronstein’s Piranesian architectural fantasies (left), looking incongruously Baroque amidst all the avant-garde edginess.  Bronstein’s work has been described as the application of historical veneers to contemporary feelings, a fusion of 18th century pomposity with Postmodernism.  It is a pastiche that, in recalling European art and architectural history, is better placed than most to comment on its assimilation into today’s culture.

Elsewhere there was a pleasingly simple sculpture of a giant cowrie shell, which, should I ever live by the sea, I would like in my garden.

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There were severalunnamed-1 entertaining mobile pieces, one  with two gilded doves flirting on a nest made from shards of kindling (right), another by Tomas Saraceno constructed of intricate wire mesh and mirrored planes, taut and balanced as a space-age Barbara Hepworth sculpture, against a background of cherry blossom photographed by Thomas Demand (below).

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In terms of photography big names such as Andreas Gursky, Wolfgang Tillmans, Francesca Woodman and Robert Mapplethorpe (below right) were all represented.  Many focused on locations undergoing change or social upheaval such as Jerusalem, or more organic urban development – in one case a chequerboard of images bears witness to the architectural palimpsest of Barcelona’s streets (below left).

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At the Stephen Friedman gallery they showed a single artist’s work – a refreshing focus compared to the sometimes haphazard juxtaposition of new works by a gallery’s whole stable of artists.  The paintings of Andreas Eriksson (right & below) are semi-abstract landscapes inspired by the Swedish countryside surrounding his studio, and there is something about the layering of the richly coloured paint that suggests all the strata of earth and rock and vegetation that have gradually formed these scenes.  It is the same sense of history literally built up layer by layer that you get when a billboard is stripped back so that you see the poster behind, and a glimpse of the one behind that, and so on…

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Julie Mehretu at White Cube Bermondsey

And so on Sunday afternoon we went to worship at the temple of modern art that is the White Cube in Bermondsey.  Within the great glass doors the atmosphere was hushed, and the vast white walls and concrete floor ascetic.  On huge white canvases, the surface as smooth as lacquer, Mehretu has drawn layer upon layer of intricate and precise architectural plans, constructing an urban geographical palimpsest, suggestive of the literal and metaphorical layers of history that a city embodies.  On top of this structural base, she has then sent splashes and daubs of black ink scurrying across the canvas, irreverently and haphazardly subverting the careful control previously established.  And on top of this a number of precisely defined abstract lines and arcs are picked out in strong black, white or brightly coloured acrylic.

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If the first two galleries are the antechambers, initiating the ignorant and acting as buffers to the outside world, it was in the third gallery that we reached the inner sanctum.  The space has been designed by architect David Adjaye, clearly revered in hip art circles, having previously designed the ‘set’ for the NPGs ‘Face of Fashion’ exhibition in 2007.  He had swivelled the walls, setting screens across each right-angle to create an octagonal space like the drum of a dome; the lighting was dimmed and the paintings illuminated by clusters of white spotlights as from a lantern. ‘Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts’ were the apostles in the squinches; ‘Invisible Line (Collective)’ stood beyond, the high altar.  There were (appropriately modernist) pews in front of each, inviting silent contemplation.

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Amid the carefully constructed architectural accumulation, the messy black brushstrokes might represent people, lined up in armies or demonstrations, or scattered in chaos by an explosion, leaving debris and carnage, undermining the semblance of order and threatening the geometrical control.  ‘Mogamma’ relates to the government building in Tahrir Square, Cairo; it also means ‘collective’ in Arabic.  Both meanings inherent in the title – revolutionary movements and peaceful gatherings – are contained in the mess of mark-making: humanity is causing chaos.  On top are the slogans, the symbols of the ideologies or creeds for which they are fighting or rejoicing – rationalisations of the irrational; or they are the lines on a graph, representing statistics that purport to abstractly tell the impossibly complex history of mankind through an emotionless, bloodless bureaucracy.  In Mehretu’s words, the paintings are ‘about ideas of power’, the struggle between freedom and control; this they very neatly display, encouraging apparently infinite freedom of thought within a carefully controlled setting…  Would we think the same of them if they sat outside on the street?