Friday, 20 July 2007

Art Special: The Wellcome Collection; Impressionists by the Sea; R.A Summer Exhibition; Insider Art at the ICA.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a few excellent exhibitions lately (and one not so good one), which I describe below:

Wellcome Collection

Firstly I went to the newly opened Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road. Set up by the Wellcome Trust (a medical and scientific charity funding research into all sorts of interesting and complex projects), to display their huge collection of artefacts brought together by their founder Sir Henry Wellcome, who died in 1936, and also with galleries enabling them to mount temporary exhibitions relevant to medicine and science today. Their grand building also houses the prestigious Wellcome Library, and is decorated with an airy feel and smart modern simplicity throughout.

Starting with their temporary exhibition, The Heart (to 16/9/07), in the lower galleries. The exhibition looks at the human heart and it’s representation in history, art and medicine, starting with the Ancient Egyptians, via early understanding of the human body, romantic connotations, religious symbolism, to the very modern medical miracle of heart transplants. I’m not a squeamish person, but some of the videos and exhibits relating to modern medicine made me feel very uncomfortable indeed. It’s not that they were disgusting or morally wrong, just that thinking about the organ that constantly sustains our life, to see it beat outside of the body, is simply strange and unsettling. This is a fascinating and beautiful exhibition, including sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, Egyptian scrolls and gruesome Aztec drawings.

To the permanent collection and the Medicine Now galleries. These galleries follow four themes, The Body (looking at our internal functions and new techniques of seeing inside), Genomes (looking at DNA and identity), and most interestingly Malaria and Obesity. The treatment of malaria in the third world and the treatment of obesity in the western world couldn’t be more different. There are also several interactive exhibits, video installations and art, so it’s not as dry as it might sound.

Finally I entered the Medicine Man gallery, this is the spaced dedicated to Sir Henry’s bizarre and Byzantine collection of artefacts. Notionally medical related, this is actually a fascinating and wonderfully eclectic museum of anthropology, a sort of min Museum of Mankind. Sir Henry was clearly an eccentric visionary philanthropist in the grand Victorian mould, and I am so please that a small portion of this truly wondrous collection have been brought together for pubic display once again. In this collection we have 19th Century Japanese sex aids, tribal masks, the grave marker of a child, English anti masturbation devices, very nasty looking surgical instruments from many eras, a mummified body from Mongolia, the portrait of England’s fattest man in the late 18th century (he died at 52 stone), the list could stretch to several pages.

The collection is free, interesting and educational, with a beautiful café and well stocked bookshop to tempt you after your perusal of the exhibitions.

RA Summer Exhibition

Over at the Royal Academy the 238th Summer Exhibition is taking place. I have less positive thing to say about this, it’s not that there aren’t some very good works on show, just that there are such a large number of bad one on display. The exhibition is open to all submissions, and a committee the Academicians chooses those accepted for exhibition, different Academicians also curate different rooms, some being ‘prestige rooms’ for the display of prominent artists work, some being rather, well less prominent, displaying the general submission nearly from floor to ceiling (everything is for sale, so little orange dots rack up on the cheaper prints and lithographs, rather spoiling the integrity of the picture, in the prestige rooms the dots goes on a plaque below the work).

I won’t go into the specifics of the works I didn’t like; it would take too much time for one thing. But the preponderance of dogs, cats, pigs, birds, horses and other boring domestic subjects is not electrifying, nor challenging, nor interesting. In the ‘prestige’ rooms there was much to like (and again, dislike), and it’s hard to decide if the individually curated rooms and themes are a good thing or leave the exhibition as an incoherent mess. David Hockney’s 50 panelled canvas of a Yorkshire scene dominates the exhibition (the largest work ever shown there), it is certainly striking and the skill in painting 50 separate canvasses having them all match up when constructed, is impressive. The simple method of painting and relatively small pallet of colours actually make the huge piece quite welcoming and not oppressively grand.

Elsewhere we have a mud/iron picture by AnselmKiefer , a neon sign by Tracy Emin, a wooden candle by Gavin Turk and a hysterical drawing of the Blair’s outside Downing Street flanked by dead bodies and abused prisoners by Michael Sandle RA (a rare moment of politics in an otherwise ‘polite’ exhibition). The room devoted to architecture is a delight as always, why can’t we have more than one room? This is the room that does feel truly modern in the exhibition, and if half of the designs showcased here (in model, drawing and computer simulation forms), the world will be a more beautiful place (including designs for a new tower in Hoxton and a small but perfectly formed kiosk for the park next to City Hall).

Impressionists by the Sea

In the small upstairs gallery at the RA, Impressionist by the Sea is installed. Another Impressionist exhibition at the RA, but it’s actually quite good and if not revelatory then informative. We see the way that the sea is represented in French art before the impressionist, all haggard fishermen, women shrimping, storms at sea, shipwrecks and the like. After the impressionist got through with the coast, the seaside that we still think of today emerged in art. The French upper middle classes, helped by the railways, had the money to go to the sea and the painters of the time really do capture the spirit of bourgeoisies’ society promenading and parading themselves. There are some lovely paintings in this exhibition, particularly Manet’s vibrant depiction of the sea, Monet’s painting of the gentility of a seaside resort and then a return by him to more elemental paintings of the sea alone (juxtaposed with a horribly sugary Renoir of a shining idealised family on a beach). It’s a small show, but worth battleling the crowds for.

Insider Art

Insider Art at the ICA is really a revelatory experience. After the polite art of the Summer Exhibition and the safety of the beloved impressionists, seeing Insider Art was very refreshing, it is actually the ultimate in outsider art. This is an exhibition of works submitted to the annual Kostler Awards Scheme (so everything has been made in the last 12 months), which encourages art in prisons, young offenders institutions, bails hostels, secure hospitals and immigration centres. The scheme has thousands of entries every year (for a very small prizes, ranging form £20-£100), and for this exhibition Grayson Perry and several other curators have chosen a selection for display (and sale). None of these people are trained artists it is safe to assume, their styles can be very childlike or naive, there are homage’s to famous artists and works (including a pot similar to Grayson Perry’s work). But the art is often excellent and very moving, but always complexly real and heartfelt. It also feels decidedly male, although there are women represented here, the exhibition like the penal system is overwhelmingly male, so we have quite a few representations of women in various stated of undress, often in idealised and fantasy situations. We also have some interesting representations of prison itself, the threat of violence in the halls, or a mournful scene in the prison yard, plus of course that yearning from freedom, a painting of an outdoor scene or an ideal dinner. Celebrity and TV culture also has prisoners in its grip just like everyone else, with a few representation of famous folk (including a picture of a woman very much like Madonna in a Warhol style, and a creepy picture of our last PM), most strikingly was a Mummy Dalek and her small pink child dalek, wearing a bib reading ‘daddy’, which I found stupidly moving at the time (assuming daddy is the artist)! There is also, again mirroring the disproportion in the prisons system, a large number of consciously black works, black history, black heroes and remembrance of slavery all feature, these often seem to come from people in young offenders institutions, and I hope that admiration of people like Dr King and Muhammad Ali will give these young people some guidance in their future lives. A game, a bit like monopoly, by the inmates of HMP Lewis, is meant to introduce new inmates into the ways of this particular institution, and the game shows creativity and intelligence aplenty. Another exhibit, Ship Home, from a man at an immigration detention centre (having not committed or been tried for any crime remember) depicted a ship with the words ‘Iran’, reminded me that our debate over immigration does have another side too, and a human cost. Finally, probably my favourite piece in this consistently interesting and varied exhibition was The Puppet Master, by Peter Thomas of HMP Dumfries. It is a small and vigorous sculpture, shows a red robed and bewigged judge with the figure of Justice above him, pulling the strings of a barrister and police officer below, between these figures sits the inmate holding a tiny but perfect recreation of his letter from the Kostler Scheme. Below that is another tier of Judges and prisoners straining to hold up the edifice above them. It is very funny and shows practical artistic ability as well as humour and self awareness.

This is an excellent show, highly recommended. It will make you think about crime and punishment, and how art can certainly play its part in rehabilitation.

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