Thursday, 22 October 2009

Art Shows: October

Frank Auerbach
Auerbach's paintings of building sites from 1952-1962 were on show at the Courtauld. Much of London was being rebuilt after the extensive damage caused by war-time bombing. Architects were getting an opportunity to turn ambitious, daring, visionary ideas into reality – at least I'm sure that's how they'd have put it. Thank goodness the money ran out (or else bureaucracy stepped in) and they didn't destroy absolutely everything that Hitler had missed. Many of the buildings were misguided, but there's always something beautiful about a building site, and Auerbach was there to capture the abstract patterns made by scaffolding and London's lovely yellow mud.

The paintings are done in thick oil paint, sometimes so thick as to turn the canvas into a relief sculpture. It has been "worked over" strenuously, something our tutors circa 1970 thought was a praiseworthy activity (keeps the students occupied). The paint has been tortured, smeared, scored and dug, and looks very like the mud of excavations, complete with spade marks and tire tracks. The evidence of hard physical labour is everywhere. There's nothing girly about these paintings. They are also quite big, another thing our tutors liked. In their eyes, a painting below a certain size simply wasn't a painting.

Don't get me wrong, I like these paintings, especially a sketch where the paint has suffered less abuse. And timber balks, tire tracks, steel skeletons, empty windows, digging men all make satisfying patterns. But it looks destruction as much as building.
The dark, muddy, foggy colours add to the feeling of sadness. See more Auerbachs here.

You can move on from the galleries where the Auerbachs are hanging into the Cortauld's permanent collection. Here are Art Deco Kandinskies and highly coloured works by Derain, Jawlensky, Bonnard, Braque and Matisse. Who has real talent, and who is imitating fashionable mannerisms? And there's a Boudin of a beach that's about the size of a postcard. I'd call that a painting.

There's an exhibition of steampunk objects at the Museum of Science, Oxford, that runs until Feb. 21, 2010. "Steam punk" is a literary genre that imagines a world that's a cross between the 19th century and now. It has all our wizard inventions, but they're made with Victorian technology and style. Lots of steam, hydraulics and brass.

Grayson Perry
Pots and a tapestry by the Turner Prize winner are on at the Victoria Miro Gallery until Nov. 7. Perry's beautiful pots are covered with line drawings of scenes that look superficially like illustrations from a 30s children's book. Look closer, and you'll find that they are much more subversive. Perry likes to cross-dress, and turns up to gallery openings as his alter ego Claire, a little girl who wears elaborate puff-sleeved dresses. The dresses are part of his art.
The Victoria Miro Gallery is a lovely converted warehouse near the Angel, Islington, with a peaceful water garden. It's quite a long walk from Angel, though you can take the canal path for some of the way. Grayson Perry is at the top of several flights of steep, steep stairs. Dear Victoria, is there room for a lift?

The main exhibit is the Walthamstow Tapestry, which takes Man from birth to death. You can see the influence if Indian embroidery, African naive paintings, cartoonist Michael Heath, medieval Doom paintings, Alan Aldridge, Terry Gilliam, London Transport picture maps, Breughel. Everywhere people are surrounded by brand names - Andrex, Waitrose. Bloated chavs in track suits push baby buggies, nice middle class people fly vintage aircraft. Al end up at a red devil's mask. A banker poses like a saint, holding a chalice of claret. A woman in Hermes headscarf and clutching a Chanel bag stands in for the Madonna. The tapestry's not hand sewn, unlike the rather similar work of Dutch artist Tilleke Schwarz.

On the opposite wall are two large drawings. One shows a map-like landscape dotted with buildings that have escaped from a history of architecture. All trees are dead and shattered as if with shell-fire. Labelled groups of people survive among the ruins, dance round maypoles, drink tea by ambulances, fight doomed last stands. Everybody is here: conservationists, elitists, the middle class, satanists, classicists, Mormons, neo-pagans, snobs, transvestites, cool people, wankers, amateurs. Nobody is spared, it's no go the merry-go-round, it's a medieval Dance of Death, no-one was saved.
A companion piece shows the artist, crucified on a Renaissance Mappa Mundi. His insides are labelled with the detritus of modern life: Quaker vegetarian chatter, preachy logo board, kidults, internet dating. Long may he reign.
The Museum of Everything
This gallery has just opened in North London, to showcase work by "outsider" artists - people without formal training, who had a different outlook on the world. Its first exhibition includes work by Henry Darger, who worked as a janitor in Chicago. In his spare time, he produced an endless frieze about the heroic Vivian girls, who seem to be traced from children's books and frequently appear nude.

He had a wonderful sense of composition and colour. The little girls have adventure after adventure, battling evil wherever they go. The epic they star in is titled: 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. Darger grew up in a severe children's home which he escaped after several attempts. Grayson Perry acknowledges his debt to Darger's work, which was discovered by his landlords shortly before his death in 1973.

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