Another Kind of Life exhibition at the Barbican review ***

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Another Kind of Life: Photography at the Margins

Barbican Art Gallery, 29th March 2018

I am lucky I have the time to visit popular galleries at quieter times. For there are some which, by dint of the material they are presenting, seem to get extremely busy at certain times. There are often queues round the block, (well not quite), of pensioners for the blockbuster exhibitions at the National, and similarly at the Tates, albeit with a more varied demographic. Good to see, if not good for seeing once you’re in.

The Barbican similarly attracts a crowd but here it is much younger and hipper. To stop myself harrumphing when they get in my way, or fiddle with their phones, and to avoid the embarrassment of being stared at given my tramp-like appearance, I find it best to go early before the layabout students are up or late when they are planning their evening’s entertainment.

Seriously though the Barbican curating team seems to be doing something right. Whilst it would be impossible to match the impact of the Basquiat spectacular (Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican review **) which I swear I tried to like but couldn’t, this new collection seems to be packing them in.

Photography, for me, is a less interesting artistic medium than, say paint, but when it shines a bright light on society, as here, than I can get drawn in. The curators have pulled together the work of, I counted, 20 photographers in total, who have documented people who have chosen to live at the margins, or right outside, mainstream society, either because of, or to reinforce, their individual, or collective, identities. The exhibition is careful to explore this theme across cultures and time. I knew next to nothing about any of the artists (bar Boris Mikhailov and Diane Arbus), and can’t pretend much knowledge subsequently, but I was struck by the strength that many of the individuals whose images are captured here derive from peer groups.

Whether it be the retro, rockabilly, multi-racial Parisian gangs photographed by Philippe Chancel, the very cool Teds of Chris Steele-Perkins, Danny Lyon’s Easy Rider biker mates, Bruce Davidson’s early 1950s New York ruffians and, most strikingly for me, Igor Palmin’s Russian hippies, there is an obvious attraction in these rebels. Choose your tribe. I never quite got over being too young for the Summer of Love.

The exhibition kicks off with the legendary Diane Arbus’s portraits of circus performers, nudists, transgender people and others from the 1960s and 1970s. Hard to believe she started as a fashion photographer alongside husband Alan. These portraits border on the intrusive and sensational but there is no doubting their influence on later generations. Take a look upstairs at Katy Grannan’s intimidating portraits of those who aren’t now part of the American Dream, or Alec Soth’s documentation of US survivalists.

The best of the rooms downstairs shows the work of Daido Moriyama and follower Seiji Kurata. The former’s blurred nighttime photos of the murkier side of Tokyo, and the latter’s more polished studies of a similar milieu, are more disquieting than some of the other groups on show. Here is real confrontation. As there is in the Tulsa photos of Larry Clark; he is one of the teens shooting up here.

The most striking documents though downstairs are to be found in the vitrine full of holiday snaps taken at Casa Susanna in the early 1960s. Casa Susanna was a weekend retreat for transgender women and cross-dressing men run by Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie in New York State. Remember this was a time when being publicly transgender was still a criminal offence. The photos were taken by Andrea Susan, one of the guests, which explains their relative quality. They were eventually discovered in a flea market and published a few years ago and inspired the play Casa Valentina at Southwark Playhouse in 2015. Everyone seems to be having a good time. It’s pretty uplifting.

The photographers showcased upstairs are more focussed on individual or small group portraits. Most striking perhaps are Jim Goldberg’s stories of street teenagers, led by Dave and Echo, from California first published in 1995 entitled Raised by Wolves. His observational technique, accompanied by text, video and other material,  is pretty harrowing, and it does, like other material in the exhibition, get you to thinking about the relationship between photographer and subject and your own relationship, as you trot around the gallery in the company of an audience of observers who are firmly within the mainstream of society (even if some may think they are not), with the subjects here, who have been forced, or chosen, or some combination thereof, to be “different”. Queasy voyeurism comes with the price of the ticket here.

The intervention of the photographer is most acute in the small room devoted to Boris Mikhailov’s photographs of a staged wedding of a homeless, alcoholic couple in contemporary Russia. It is provocative but it gets its point across. I found these hardest to look at. Paz Errazuriz’s pictures of transgender women from Chile are doubly arresting, precisely because that is what would have happened to her is she had been caught taking such photographs in Pinochet’s Chile.

You will also be intrigued by the stories behind Pieter Hugo’s portraits of Nigerian men and their captive animals, hyaenas and baboons, that live on the fringes, and alarm, South African society. Mind you some of them are gang members, drug dealers and debt collectors so the fear may be justified. They are certainly imposing and, I think, the photographs which I found most aesthetically pleasing if that makes sense. Pathologist turned conceptual artist,Teresa Margolles’s pictures of transgender prostitutes set amidst the ruins of their nightclub workplaces in Mexico, pulled down by the authorities, in an attempt to move them on, have a similar artistic sensibility.

I realise as I have written this, and learnt more about the photographers involved, that I probably need didn’t try hard enough and need to revisit and relook. That’s what can happen if you have time and an open mind. Time, and open minds, is what changes attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

 

Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican review **

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Basquiat: Boom For Real

Barbican Art Gallery

I just don’t get it. Why are punters and critics raving about this broad retrospective of the artistic myth that was/is Jean-Michel Basquiat? I completely understand how significant an artistic/cultural phenomenon he was before his early death in 1988 (aged 27, same age as Masaccio, and various rock’n’roll heroes), and he definitely comes across as an interesting bloke, living in interesting times, mixing with interesting people in an interesting city. But “one of the most significant painters of the 20th century” as the intro to the exhibition claims. Come on. Picasso, Juan Gris, Malevich, Chagall, David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer, Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele, George Grosz, Oscar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Gwen John, Lucien Freud Agnes Martin, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Bridget Riley, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Rothko, Clyfford Still, Josef Albers, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Hamilton, Alex Katz, Peter Doig, Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter. That’s just some of the painters I think are better, Even Hockney, for all his faults, is a way better artist in my book than Basquiat. 

Maybe his reputation simply reflects the price of his art. If a Japanese collector wants to pay $110m for one of Basquiat’s works who am I to argue. The same fella paid $57m for another one last year. I guess he must like them. Mind you some numpty just paid $450m for a Leonardo that probably isn’t. I hope whoever it is hands out the readies to charities on a regular basis and pays his or her, or maybe its, taxes.

For me this does point up a whole bunch of necessary, (and probably unpleasant), fictions on which our world is hooked. The fiction of money. The buyer presses a key to conjure up some electronic corn, the seller parks it somewhere in a different server, They both believe it is real. The notion of value. The value of a piece of art is a function of who paid for it in the first place, and for what purpose, whether it survived, so how scarce it is, and how it is now viewed by experts (whose opinions change, a lot). We, the viewing public, also now get a look in, if we like what we see. Let us call this the aesthetic value. This may not be synonymous with its use value. Its exchange value, given its unique character, is likely to be its price, and this can be anything that a buyer wants it to be. A unique object, a tiny coterie of buyers, a rigged market. Clearly price is no indication of value. We also have the fiction of legal ownership sitting behind this Leonardo transaction. The seller’s fortune was built on potash. Once a state asset, now his. Right time, right place, right attitude. And finally we have the prosiac fiction that Salvator Mundi may not actually have been painted by the hand of the great Renaissance polymath. Does it matter? No idea.

Anyway Boom for Real kicks off with some early works from the New York/New Wave exhibition in 1981. There are some naive townscapes which stand out and some of the trademark self portrait skulls. We then see J-MB’s gnomic graffiti work as SAMO© and tour through late 1970’s and 1980s New York, meeting some of his chums and collaborators along the way. Music (he was in a band), video, performance, clubs, postcards, photos, flyers, poetry, helmets, other stuff. Not much visible in the way of drugs, best keep that under wraps (no pun intended), though his habit exudes out of the later works. There is no doubt that J-MB got about a bit and that the New York scene of this period was pretty exciting. No wave, new wave, Mudd Club, Club 57. Most of the music that came out of this era is shite, trust me, but it did give us the mighty Talking Heads, and, latterly, Swans, and the first stirrings of hip hop. Of course this was all middle class, white art students feeding off the prior generations of New York cool, but, given the quality of the legacy, this was heady stuff. (We Brits had to make do with proper working class, DIY, Punk and its antecedents – I for one was happy with that deal).

J-MB stood out because of his beauty, his personality, his relentless self-promotion, his nihilism, his “self taught”, status and obviously his colour. No wonder he was embraced and feted by the artistic establishment, (there is a canvas by Keith Haring, J-MB’s most obvious “influence”), including a room devoted to the relationship with the granddaddy of them all, Andy Warhol. As well as some double portraits, the curators are proud to show off a lease for the flat AW rented to J-MB. There is a lot of stuff like this upstairs, whisper it, maybe a bit too much.

Downstairs we finally get to see more substantial work and this, I am afraid, is where I have a beef. Lists of stuff J-MB read, references to canonic Renaissance artists and Jazz greats, anatomical life sketches, self portraits, poetry of a sort, black heroes, cars, planes, repeated signs and symbols. I can appreciate the fidgety energy and the restless enquiry which blares out from these works and their semiotic value. I can see that J-MB had a lot to say about the situation of a black man in a white world. I can definitely see why people were attracted to him. What I can’t see is any interesting drawing or painting marks. There is a lot to read here, and the man undoubtedly had a lot to say, but nothing much to really see. The hyperbolic nonsense from the curators which follows you round the exhibition didn’t help.

I know I am in a minority here and, given that this is the first major exhibition of his work to appear in the UK, (and there is next to nothing in collections), I can see why the punters are rolling in. I just don’t think he was a particularly interesting painter. Person yes, painter no. There was more for me in the few pieces of work from David Hammons in the recent Tate Modern Soul of a Nation exhibition than there is across all of this exhibition. (Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****). And he, Hammons, is a fella who can properly take the conceptual piss. Witness USD 200K some-one paid for his work On Loan.

 

 

 

 

 

Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

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Here is a very brief round-up, (apparently I can drone on a bit so have tried to be disciplined), of the current and forthcoming major theatre and exhibition events in London that have caught my eye (and ear). I have a list of classical concerts which is still good to go for those that way inclined (Some forthcoming classical music concert ideas (with a bit of nostalgia thrown in) and will take a look at the best of the forthcoming seasons at the two major opera houses in another post.

No particular order and not at all obscure. There should be tickets available for all of these but in some cases you may need to get your finger out.

Hope this helps if, unlike me, you are not over endowed with time.

Theatre

I can vouch for the first four below and the rest are those which I think are likely to be the most likely to turn into “must-sees”.

  • Hamlet – Harold Pinter Theatre – June to September 2017

If you think Shakespeare is not for you then think again. Andrew Scott as our eponymous prince could be chatting to you in the pub it is that easy to follow (mind you, you’d think he was a bit of a nutter) and Robert Icke’s direction is revelatory. Plenty of tickets and whilst it’s not cheap they aren’t gouging your eyes out compared to other West End shows. Here’s what I thought.

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

  • The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre – June to October 2017

This will almost certainly be the best play of 2017 and will be an oft revived classic. It is better than writer Jez Butterworth’s previous masterpiece, Jerusalem. Prices are steep but the Gielgud is a theatre where the cheap seats are tolerable. If you see one play this year make this it.

The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

  • Babette’s Feast – Print Room Coronet – to early June 2017

There are a couple of weeks left on this. Probably helps if you know the film or book. I was enchanted though proper reviews less so. Loads of tickets, cheap as chips, not demanding at all, lovely venue.

Babette’s Feast at the Print Room Coronet review ****

  • Othello – Wilton’s Music Hall – to early June 2017

Again just a couple of weeks left here. Once again perfect Shakespeare for those who don’t think it is for them. Big Will’s best play and an outstandingly dynamic production. Another atmospheric venue, though I would say get right up close. A bargain for this much class.

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

  • The Tempest – Barbican Theatre – July and August 2017

This is the RSC transfer from Stratford. Simon Russell Beale, our best stage actor, as Prospero. Some fancy dan technology is employed. Reviews generally positive though you always get sniffiness from broadsheets whenever RSC plays a bit fast and loose with big Will. Not cheap but at least at the Barbican you will be comfy (if you don’t go too cheap).

  • Macbeth – Barbican Theatre – 5th to 8th October 2017

More bloody Shakespeare. Literally. On this you are going to have to trust me. Ninagawa is a Japanese theatre company renowned for its revelatory productions. So in Japanese with surtitles. But when these top class international companies come to the Barbican it is usually off the scale awesome. I’ve been waiting years to see them. Enough tickets left at £50 quid a pop but it will sell out I think.

  • The Suppliant Women – Young Vic – 13th to 25th November 2017

Reviews when this was shown at Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh were very good. Aeschylus, so one of them Greeks, updated to shed light on the refugee crisis. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, and you can probably wait until closer to opening, but I still think this will turn into a must see.

  • Ink – Almeida Theatre – June to August 2017

Writer James Graham’s last major outing, This House, about politics in 1970s Britain, was hilarious and insightful. This is based on the early life of Rupert Murdoch so expect a similar skewering. Directed by Almeida’s own Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel the lead (the sh*t of a husband in that Doctor Foster off the telly). I have very high hopes for this,

  • Against – Almeida Theatre – August and September 2017

New play which sounds like it is about some crazy US billionaire taking over the world (I could be hopelessly wrong as Almeida doesn’t tell you much). Written by American wunderkind Chris Shin, directed by master of clarity Ian Rickson, and with Ben Wishaw in the lead. Don’t know how much availability as public booking only opens 25th May, but I would get in quick here and buy blind. Almeida now a lot comfier with the padded seats and still a bargain for what is normally world class theatre.

  • Prism – Hampstead Theatre – September and October 2017

New play from the marvellous Terry Johnson who writes brainy comedy Robert Lindsay in the lead role of a retired cinematographer. I have a feeling there will be more to this than meets the eye (!!) and will buy blind on the public booking opening. Usually around £30 a ticket so if it turns into a hit, as Hampstead productions sometimes do, it is a bargain.

  • Young Marx – The Bridge Theatre – October to December 2017

So this is the opener from the team at the Bridge which is the first large scale commercial theatre to be opened in London for decades. The genius Nick Hytner directs and the play is written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. The last time these three came together out popped One Man, Two Guvnors. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris (trust me you will know him off the telly) play the young Marx and Engels in London. Hard to think of a set up that could get me more excited but if any part appeals to you I would book now. There are loads of performances so no urgency but, if they have any sense at all, the seats here will be v. comfy with good views as it is all brand new, so taking a punt on a cheap seat will probably turn out well.

  • Julius Caesar – The Bridge Theatre – January to April 2018

Bridge again. Julius Caesar so probably need to know what you are letting yourself in for as solus Roman Shakespeare’s can sometimes frustrate. BUT with David Morrissey, Ben Wishaw, David Calder and Michelle Fairley, it is a super heavyweight cast. Same logic as above – it might be worth booking early and nabbing a cheap seat on the assumption they would be mad not to serve up the best auditorium in London if the venture is to succeed.

  • The Retreat – Park Theatre – November 2017

The Park often puts on stuff that sounds way better than it actually turns out to be, but this looks the pick of its forthcoming intriguing bunch. Written by Sam Bain (Peep Show and Fresh Meat) and directed by Kathy Burke. Comedy about a City high flyer who gives it all up but can’t escape the past. If anything is guaranteed to wheel in the North London 40 and 50 somethings then this is it. No cast announcement yet but I bet they rope some comic into the lead.

  • The Real Thing – The Rose Theatre Kingston – 2nd to 14th October

A co-production with Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre of one of Stoppard’s greatest plays. I really want this to be a cracking revival for my local.

Exhibitions

Here is the pick of the forthcoming blockbusters which I hope to get to see. The Jasper Johns and the Cezanne Portraits are the ones I am most excited about.

  • Giacometti – Tate Modern – just opened until 10th September 2017
  • Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains – V and A – until 1st October 2017
  • Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction – Barbican Art Gallery – from 3rd June 2017
  • Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – Serpentine Gallery – from 8th June 2017
  • Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth – Royal Academy – from 23rd September 2017
  • Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – V and A – from 30th September 2017
  • Cezanne Portraits – National Portrait Gallery – from 26th October 2017
  • Monochrome: Painting in Black and White – National Gallery – from 30th October 2017
  • Impressionists in London – Tate Britain – from 2nd November 2017
  • Red Star Over Russia – Tate Modern – from 8th November 2017
  • Modigliani – Tate Modern – from 23rd November 2017

 

 

The Japanese House exhibition at the Barbican review ***

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The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945

Barbican Art Gallery, 27th March 2017

Bit of a mixed bag/curate’s egg here. There are some undeniably interesting insights in this exhibition but I was less enamoured of the set piece external and internal installations accommodated within the fabric of the Barbican’s gallery space (which is not a great favourite of mine – it lacks natural light and always feels a bit half-hearted compared to the Hall and Theatre). These installations just felt a bit gimmicky.

What the exhibition does convey is the extraordinary imagination that generations of post WWII architects have brought to Japanese domestic architecture when faced with limitations of space, capital or materials. There are some beautiful solutions, largely delicate and transitory, whether as built projects or simply paper ideas. Resolving the relationship between the interior and exterior is a particular skill on show with many of the houses deliberately putting the interior on show whilst others resolutely turn their backs on the outside world. And many of them are just so dinky.

There is an interesting video tracing the development of rapid build, affordable housing by way of example through the period under review and some excerpts from the domestic films by the post war Japanese masters including Yasujiro Ozu reminding me of another rich seam of cinema that I need to explore. Watching Tokyo Story again recently left me and the SO speechless – a must do for anyone and everyone.

So if you are an architectural buff or a denizen of Japanese culture worth popping along. For the more casual observer there s probably only just enough on show to justify the trip, and it promises maybe a little more than it actually delivers.