Crossing Science and Art

Above: an inadequate attempt to show the extraordinary detailing of Laura Culham’s 1:1 scale paper sculptures of weeds. That narrow crease in the carefully rounded plant stem defies belief.

The autumnal nip in the air and shortening days prompts me to start thinking about show time in the contemporary art world. A summer spent introspectively researching and making in the studio and farther afield is all well and good, but time now to pull out the diary, read the newsletters and launch back in to visiting, reviewing and reflecting on what’s happening out there NOW.

So I was lured down to London yesterday by the enticing prospect of a group show Nature Reserves at GV Art near Baker Street. The gallery is clear on its focus: it aims to explore and acknowledge the inter- relationship between art and science, and how the areas cross over and inform one another.

As the daughter of a research scientist who was passionate about art, I always think this is a much overlooked but fascinating intersection, particularly in terms of process. Open-ended play, exploration and risk-taking alongside hard grind are key to success in both. But that’s a topic for another post another time.

Nature Reserves is conceived and curated by Tom Jeffreys, and is a thoughtful and intriguing show with a great online catalogue. I’ve been to so many shows this last year with untitled works and no context and yes, whilst allowing space for the viewer’s own thoughts is fine, complete absence of information becomes wearisome after a while. I appreciate a context, and a beautifully written catalogue adds immeasurable value to any show. Not least, how satisfying it is these days be able to download a “book” and shelve it in iBooks for instant future access.

And this show taken as a whole is also extremely beautiful and immaculately presented. It’s a joy to wander and gaze at the works within GV Art’s great space, and after some summer reflections on Art and Beauty in post-modern times, I’m owning up without shame to the fact I love nothing more than thought-provoking and compelling beauty (another post waiting to be written one day).

I wanted to visit Nature Reserves primarily because it includes works by Laura Culham, whose work I saw and admired last year in a show at the Hoxton Gallery. But everything else was well up to meet my high expectations.

I liked the way that the execution of a lot of the exhibits nicely reflected scientific methods of enquiry; painstaking attention to detail whilst maintaining a clear focus on outcome. The details to be found in the extraordinarily intricate paper sculptures of Culham; the moon studies of Anaïs Tondeur (unfortunately hung slightly inaccessibly for my myopic gaze) and the exquisite lithograph of Victoria Browne all exemplify this. It is so hard to maintain a coherent artistic vision when this level of detailed study is in play.

Then there is the simple perfection of natural forms and the clarity of approach necessitated by the study and cataloguing of natural forms. Liz Orton’s immaculately photographed piles of specimens reference both, with their air of a 17th century Dutch still life: clarity and detail set against a matt dark velvet surface and background but all subsumed into an harmonious, abstract, effortless composition. The piles cut through the space and continue beyond the borders of the picture plane, alluding perhaps to the challenges inherent in containing through labeling and classification?

It wasn’t just visual sensory material though. Hestia Peppe’s live Kombucha culture installation provided an earthy pungent background scent to my wanderings, and made me laugh out loud. I returned a few times to replenish my olfactory sense as an ongoing accompaniment to the other exhibits.

And I was delighted to see real scientific collections displayed and attributed to their parent organizations. On first encountering the UCL geology and other collections, a little jaded part of me yawned slightly at yet another pleasantly aesthetic “found” artwork. But when I saw the catalogue entry, I cheered inwardly. There is something much more powerful about the direct acknowledgement of provenance in this show; truly recognizing the inherent art form of scientific enquiry both aesthetically and conceptually.

Nature Reserves is on until 13th September 2013. Check opening times.

Lucien Freud: A Painter’s Painter

Yesterday for the first time in weeks I managed to write today’s post and schedule it for publication this morning. I thought it would be nice to wake up, potter into town for a haircut and then traipse into the studio without having to remember the blog. Then just before going to bed, I heard the announcement of Lucien Freud‘s death, and decided it was one of those Life and Art moments which could have waited a day, but should really prevail over the as-yet-unpublished effort. Loads of far more knowledgeable and insightful material will be appearing on the topic over the next few days, so I may as well offer my spontaneous pennyworth immediately.

Freud for me is a painter’s painter for a number of reasons.

First, the joy of his work lies as much in the detail as in the whole. A bit like the Taj Mahal. Getting up as close as the barriers allow, I could spend forever peering at the luscious marks crowding the surface. The subtlety and softness of the edges belies the hours, weeks, months he would apparently spend on a painting. The marks carry a freshness and bravura more often associated with finish-in-a-session work. If he scraped back and worked fresh each session, there are no obvious signs of it. Maybe he was just very good at oiling out.

Second, his work is better in real-life than in reproduction. I have written before on this for me being one of my acid tests of great work. Digital photography is both flattering and forgiving to most mark-making, and there is frequently a sense of disappointment when encountering shows which promised so much on the strength of the publicity shot, but in reality demonstrate a crude insensitive handling of paint. Freud’s work never disappoints in this way.

Third, his handling of the subject in such a way that he retained respect and critical acclaim in an era when figurative, and more specifically portrait painting, has struggled to command serious attention. For those of us addicted to the depiction of the human form, his continuing devotion and commitment to paint honestly and with integrity, searching for no more than the essence of who we are and our humanity, is inspiring, encouraging, and a beacon of the continuing relevance and importance of ‘just’ painting.

Art I Love: James Turrell’s Deer Shelter

James Turrell's Deer Shelter Skyspace (detail of photo by Florain Holzherr)

James Turrell has been building rooms which he calls ‘skyspaces’ since 1974. The basic idea is that it is a room with seating and an aperture through which the visitor can gaze at the sky. Sounds simple? It is actually one of the most complex, absorbing and genuinely sublime mind-enhancing experiences you can have, as I found when I experienced my first skyspace in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park a couple of years ago.

The Deer Shelter Skyspace I visited was adapted from an early 19th century deer shelter. These shelters, or folds, were used by stock for shelter in poor weather, and the Bretton Estate shelter is a relatively simple structure, constructed in what was probably a small, disused quarry where stone was cut for use on the estate.

As I wandered across the park in search of the structure, I trailed behind two little old ladies also bound for the space. It was a dull, threatening sort of day, and as I drew closer, I heard them debating whether it was worthwhile going in without blue sky up above. I wanted to intervene and shout yes, yes, of course it is. This is England. Who designs an artwork which relies on blue sky for best effect? In fact, I later found these interesting observations from Turrell:

“The softness of light you find here is extraordinary. Britain has a maritime climate: this is an island in the sea. There’s moisture in the air so you have a really soft light and it’s often very variegated as well, with lighting events that comes from openings in clouds and so on”

The ladies chose not to bother, but they missed a treat. The thick cloud almost descended into the space, pushing out light, reversing the expected sensation of light and infinity. I felt compressed, with a trompe d’oeil fluorescent light pressing in from above. When it lifted, my spirits soared with the lightening of the interior and a glimpse of beyond and infinite space. I always mutter about too few moments for meditation and contemplation in my life. In the Deer Shelter, surrounded by thick concrete with only upwards to gaze there can be no escape from the endless possibilities of the mind or of the universe.

Art I Love: Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan

Doge Leonardo Loredon (1501-2) Giovanni Bellini

Doge Leonardo Loredon (1501-2) Giovanni Bellini

It took me a while to get into Renaissance painting. Then once I had, I couldn’t see enough of it. Museums and galleries where I would have previously rushed through the early rooms without glancing left or right suddenly became very enticing places, and it was like discovering a new author, where you are compelled to track down and read everything he/she has written.

Bellini’s Doge from the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries is one of the best around. I first encountered it in a game of Masterpiece, a wonderful board game from the 60s or 70s involving auctions of Old Masters with vast potential for squabbles, bluffs and deception. The reproduction didn’t make much of an impact on me as a child: it was just a painting of an ugly old man.

The first time I seriously viewed and considered it as an extraordinary work of art was when I was researching picture frames, and found a large reproduction of it in the book I was studying. For the first time, the startling beauty of the composition and colour harmonies really hit me. I felt quite overwhelmed by the apparently effortless simplicity of the image, but also its compelling abstract qualities. The terracotta strip at the base grounds the image, and is reflected by the hat band and warm hues of the face. The magical blue background is the counterpoint to the orange and golden-cream hues, but no reproduction can do the blue justice. When I first saw the painting for real, I stood for ages just gazing at the blue.

Then there is the technical virtuosity: the impeccable and exquisite rendering of the cope, and the face. There is a closely observed asymmetry to the features, which gives the Doge an enigmatic half-smile. What was Bellini trying to say with this?

It is in the National Gallery collection, and is a work not to be missed if you haven’t seen it in real life and get the chance to go there.

Art I Love: Vera Lutter’s Battersea Power Station


Battersea Power Station, XXV: July 29, 2004

Battersea Power Station, XXV: July 29, 2004

I saw Vera Lutter’s work in a touring exhibition Alchemy at Harewood House in 2006. The exhibition presented the work of about a dozen contemporary photographers concerned with exploring the essential properties of the medium: space, time, light and chemical reaction. Alchemy suggested the transformation of the ordinary through the photographic process.


Lutter’s work is monumental in conception, execution and outcome. The image above of Battersea Power Station was made using an adapted shipping container to create an enormous camera obscura. The tiny aperture needed to grasp the detail in sharp focus means exposures can take days or even weeks. So the artist may end up inhabiting and moving around inside the camera itself, although her presence is undetectable in the final image.

The final image consists of a huge black and white inverted negative on paper; turned back the right way up for exhibition purposes. It appears to show a scene, but the recording is deceptive; all movement and actual traces of reality have been lost. The monumental vision remaining to confront the viewer diminishes and displaces any sense of normality. There is however a sense of stillness and simplicity which is quite compelling. A majestic, extraordinary artwork.

Art I Love: Anoli Perera’s Elastic Dress

An occasional series of posts on art which has impacted on me; art which has in some way encouraged other ways of ‘seeing’ and thinking about life and art.

Elastic Dress, 2010

Elastic Dress, 2010 by Anoli Perera, Leeds City Art Gallery 2010

I first encountered Anoli Perera’s work at the Between Kismet to Karma exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery in spring 2010. The exhibition examined the notion of conflict in its broadest sense as experienced by South Asian women artists from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, but within a British context. Anoli Perera was one of the Sri Lankan artists, and her work was stunning. The Elastic Dress 2010 was the centrepiece of the main exhibition space, and justifiably gloried in its blazing dominance of the room.

Perera’s sculptures and installations make use of found and other materials, and in recent years she had been drawn to the idea of dress-making as a form of sculpture.  She has talked of the woman who weaves her ‘complex net of social, economic and cultural relationships around her’, and as a metaphor for this broad concept of the place of woman in society, with its intricately spider’s web woven textural construction, Elastic Dress both intrigued and delighted the eye.

But Elastic Dress was so much more. It dominated and flooded the room with a bright red blood-like aura, at first glance life-like and life-size, but transformed upon closer inspection into a massive, imposing, solid form despite the open fragility of its construction. But as an elastic form, it was capable of infinite adaptation to any shape or size of female form: it embraced all women, everywhere, and challenged conventional notions of beauty and size with skilful assurance. With its seemingly effortless simplicity of form and colour, I found it quite magnificent.

Art I Love: David Johnson’s Imaginary Landscape no 2

I encountered David Johnson‘s work for the first time in a retrospective exhibition, Returning Light, at Dean Clough Galleries in Halifax in 2007. I have read that he seeks to create contemplative art; with a simple presence but with a density to it such as one might experience with poetry. He succeeds wonderfully.

I have realised that one of the reasons I want to draw together a series of posts on art I love is because it allows me to think more deeply and in a much more considered fashion what great and enduring art is all about. And one of the key elements is an apparently effortless simplicity which leaves the viewer with a density of thought and feeling about the experience of the encounter for a long time after.

Imaginary Landscape no 2 (19(87)97) by David Johnson

Imaginary Landscape no 2 (19(87)97) by David Johnson

The particular work I have chosen is Imaginary Landscape No 2 (19(87)97), which comprised a wardrobe, entirely dark inside. The door however had been left ajar, and a slide projection of light presented an illusion of light escaping from the wardrobe. It defied logic. It still does, today, when I revisit the images of the installation.

At first sight, the light from the wardrobe for me seemed a curious but beautiful evocation of nostalgia and childhood mystery. It was only after a few minutes that the curiosity of an internal light source prompted a questioning of the reality/unreality of the experience of the work. Suddenly, quiet contemplation of the calm beauty was interrupted by a sense of shock and disbelief. And above all, How? So simple and yet so complex. So tranquil and yet so disturbing. Extraordinary art.

Art I Love no.1: Zadok Ben David’s Blackfield

"Blackfield" scupltural installation: the first sight

Blackfield, by Zadok Ben David 2007-09

Sometimes it’s too easy to lose focus on what we do and why we do it. One way of refocusing for me is to revisit great art I have seen. Usually I can’t actually revisit, but re-reading contemporaneous notes and sketches and catalogues works just as well to conjure up the experience in my mind. So I have decided to make time to regularly reflect on great art which has had an important impact on me, and post my reflections on a weekly basis as part of this blog.

I’m starting with a sculptural installation I visited a year ago in Tel Aviv which I couldn’t get out of my head for days. It was one of those works you want to tell everyone you meet to go and see, because you want to be able to share the experience with people you know for long after. Luckily I visited with my daughter, and another good friend got to see it, so I am able to indulge in happy reminiscence of the experience.

The work was part of an exhibition, Human Nature by Zadok Ben David. Blackfield comprised a huge field of sand planted with 20,000 metal and painted cutouts of defined, specified flowers. It was breathtaking enough to enter the space and catch a glimpse of the panorama of black silhouetted cutouts, but as you worked your way around the perimeter, the whole field was suddenly transformed in a breathtaking manner into a meadow of brilliant colour. From ashes to life.

Some works of art prompt awe for their beauty. Others for their technical skill and meticulous workmanship. Sometimes you are just consumed by the question of “how?” Blackfield triggered every imaginable response. At first sight, it presented for me an oddly baroque quality of grandeur, rich pattern and movement and dramatic tonal contrasts. Others were reminded of the precision and beauty of Northern Renaissance botanical drawings. In fact, the hand painted colours are not scientifically accurate; moreover,  some plants are odd crossbreeds; others are purely imaginary. Many grow in different places and climates, but in this field they all flourish together.

Blackfield, detail

Blackfield, detail

The careful layout of the ‘field’ prompted the visitor to walk the perimeter, and this was when the explosion of colour occurred through shifting perspectives of the 2D cutouts, black on one side and brightly painted on the other. Having walked around once, I was consumed by a need to move around again, crouching down, nose almost to the ground, to see from yet another perspective. I carried on walking around, bobbing up and down, moved, awed, blown over by its complete magnificence.

As an investigation of the human condition, and what it is to be human, Blackfield assumes a hugely significant place in my personal gallery of the greats.

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