1927-32 by Stanley Spencer
Sandham Memorial Chapel; on display at Somerset House until 26 January 2014
There are many attractions to Spencer’s Sandham chapel paintings – their multiplicity in showing different faces of war, their dedication in being painted pain-stakingly over 5 years for a space designed to quietly remember, and of course Spencer’s distinctive style that is evocative of the time. The struggle to produce such a poignant memorial is something most of the world are trying desperately to achieve in light of the coming centenary, which perhaps highlights how successful Spencer’s (albeit from actual experience) reflections are. Although each painting is full of activity – whether it be a hospital scene, figures laid out in death or fatigue, the mundane but evidently necessary Filling Water-bottles – the soft detail Spencer applies in his painting slows each action down, drawing it out for our realisation and the emotion that comes with it. The figures are caught in the agonising pull of army life, which Spencer draws out visually with his style. Their faces, limbs and labours are pulled out before us – in Map-Reading soldiers’ arms are caught and drawn with desperation across the bushes in the background, while figures are draped languidly one by one across the grass. The ‘Map-Reader’ is then elevated in his task, floating above his men, picked out and swollen with responsibility as the map falls out in front of him. The arched shape that all the paintings adhere to encourages the feeling of looking in, peering into a world we can hardly comprehend, Spencer’s warped sense of perspective carrying us into the disbelief of what was reality. The paintings appear ethereal, picked out with such details as the pure and small white leaves scattered across the bushes that give this painting a curious and quiet beauty, akin to Heaven rather than warfare. Free and in central London, whether you’ve been to Sandham or not, these paintings are well worth a visit.
Lovers in Blue
1914 by Marc Chagall
Lovers in Blue is an incredibly intimate painting; the emotion of love and that of lovers is something Chagall achieves in much of his work (see postcard 164), though this quiet intimacy is perhaps less common. His couples are often euphoric, celebrating their union in the fantastical tumbling of Chagall’s weightless world, but here we are drawn in closer, to their faces and tender kiss. The shaded eyes of one of the figures, with the closed lids of the other, encourages this quiet and enclosed atmosphere. As if we are caught in a memory or dream, we are coddled in this embrace that seeps across the painting in the shape of a soft and intense indigo blue. This blue is carried throughout the palette of the painting, embedding the lover’s union in the canvas as it seeps through each colour used; their love is constant through the very pigment of the paint that describes them. The white that casts their faces is marble-like, sculptural in the angles of the figure on the left; lighting them up, they appear almost holy. The choice of colour makes this painting particularly poignant. With love and lust we might think of a bright and passionate red – and Chagall is by no means afraid of bright colours – however here he chooses blue. Calmer, more serene and less expected, the colour carries the weight of emotion, as Picasso’s Blue Period paintings do (see postcard 109). The blue creates both the painting and its poignancy, as we are instantly caught by its spell.
2013 by Chris Otley
The Other Art Fair 2013; http://www.chrisotley.com
There is something in black and white drawings of animals that stops the element of ‘twee’ creeping in. Perhaps it’s the subconscious association with anatomical drawings, which science relied on before photography, or the romance of the old role of the artist on historical explorations. Otley is certainly taken with this historical notion of documentation, as he quotes Robert Hooke (1665) on the excellence and curiosity of nature on the back of his postcards. It is this excellence of Nature that will continue to ‘manifest’, as Hooke states, and that Otley looks to convey through his detailed drawings, building upon our fascination by freezing Nature’s marvels in front of us for examination. Every scale of a fish is picked out, every feather on a bird; in Shoebill the texture is so acute one feels themselves reaching out to touch it. The monotone of the soft pencil comes across slightly dated, documentary, reinforcing the feeling of history and the fact that most of these species have been around far longer than us. To marvel at nature is to marvel at its force and adaptability over time, which Otley’s large and impressive drawings remind us to do. Documentation began with the artist and nature continues to spawn art – you can currently see the Society of Wildlife Artists 50th annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries and Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum.
Yesterday’s Labour is the Future’s Folly
2013 by Clare Kenny
Vitrine Gallery, until 22 November 2013
Kenny’s exhibition is the first in Vitrine’s new gallery space; they haven’t moved far (only downstairs) but bright white walls and a window are always inviting for new work. Fitting then that their artist Clare Kenny is the first to fill it, with her work that is so dependent on architecture, space and material. Kenny’s wonderful textures creep up the newly painted walls, her fantastical pastel colours light and barely visible. Looking closely, the colours and materials that make her sculptures transform the walls; borrowed from other surfaces, they pull you in as her work collectively transforms the space. A pair of sawed off legs, one slightly shorter than the other, stand opposite a screwed up ball of what looks like the darkness of space – balled and jagged like a meteorite – juxtaposed by carefully framed prints of light and dreamy colour. The presentation of neatly framed prints alongside printed three-dimensional sculptures create a wonderful sense of play in the contrast of conflicting presentation. Prints are even rolled as a tube, acting as a architectural pillar in the space, blurring the boundaries still. Our postcard work sees a garden trellis covered with a grainy concrete-like texture, playing by covering an object well-known with a surface it might usually sit on. The print – which has been screwed up like the meteorite – is tucked in as an angled after-thought; the crisp and ordered trellis acting as a juxtaposing frame to this brightly coloured, process filled print. The small print is bursting with energy, it’s swirling depth ignited with the almost neon brilliance of Kenny’s pastel colours. The contrast is acute, summing up the pushing and pulling of material that Kelly manipulates throughout this exhibition.
2013 by Dickon Drury
The Other Art Fair 2013
Frieze week is in full swing, with art everywhere – from fairs to galleries to pop up spaces. The Other Art Fair has moved with Moniker to The Old Truman Brewery off Brick Lane. With stands run by artists, rather than galleries, the East London setting seems bang on; though many galleries have moved back West, artists’ studios are rife here and it feels fitting that their fair stands alongside. Walking round the fair is slightly daunting; with the work’s artist always hovering nearby, initial reactions (whether facial or vocal) need to be curtailed, your viewing coming under constant scrutiny. Having said that, it is refreshing to have the artist on hand to explain and talk about their work, their enthusiasm infectious and your understanding embellished. One of my favourite stands was that of Dickon Drury’s, the fantastical painter whose lush green paintings beckon viewers into another world. The green of the trees appears to drip with the hot and luxurious steam of palm houses, thickening the paint to seem wet and alive with the jungle. This heavy mist hangs in the distance, blending the sky to a balmy and diluted turquoise. Light is brilliant, as Drury leaves his bright skies unashamedly pure, making leaves dance as white scatters them into pattern. In Jungle Boogie Drury also gives us a curious little group of nudes; standing round a camp fire – one in a hands-on-hip stance – they appear to be posing for the image, friendly and unabashed. This intriguing naked group kindle the feeling of nature within Drury’s paintings; clothes would seem out of place here and their pinkish bodies appear in harmony with the deep jungle that surrounds them. Go and find them before they disappear.
Saint Jerome beats Himself while contemplating Christ’s Suffering
2012 by Michael Landy
Saints Alive, until 24 November ’13, The National Gallery
Michael Landy’s exhibition at The National Gallery has had mixed reviews, though it seems mostly to do with the fact that the sculptures are not always guaranteed to be working. Only one sculpture wasn’t working when I visited, and this had little effect on my positive reaction. Even without their loud and unexpected noises, Landy’s sculptures are large and original; casting recognisable elements of National Gallery paintings before our eyes, allowing them to grow into oversized abstractions. These details – an arm, a torso – are connected to each other with rusty old machinery, as if the ancient cogs of thought behind these old master paintings have been slowly turned into action. We see Doubting Thomas’s determined finger prod Christ’s chest enthusiastically, and so the tale is provoked within our minds. The fact that children and adults alike have been drawn back to the wealth of Saintly depictions in the National Gallery’s collection can only be good, reigniting interest in the emotions that drove each artist to their painting. Even if the contraptions are not working, Landy’s drawings of other ideas for sculptures are fascinating. Perhaps too ambitious to be realised three-dimensionally, they still play out before us, as our eye is guided along and up the arms of imagination. Here we have Saint Jerome, mighty Grecian fists at the ready for his beating, while his contemplation of Christ’s suffering expands above his thoughtful gaze. Empathy and the awe of Christ’s past jump out at us from this playful visualisation of Saint Jerome’s thoughts, the juxtaposition of traditional painting and energetically drawn springs and cogs pulling us in with humour – the pages of a book, a head, the lion with its thorn, all brightly suspended. Like fragments of brilliant memory, Landy draws details of various paintings together creatively, shaking our perception of them and inviting us to look a little closer.
1955 by Elmer Bischoff
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Bischoff was part of the post-war American Bay Area Figurative Movement, a group of artists who rejected the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism (see postcard 140, a Jackson Pollock) for one that brought back figurative elements to painting. While paint is still laid heavily and shape abstracted, the figurative definition in Bischoff’s work creates obvious or personal narratives, channelling audience reaction in a very different way to the Abstract Expressionists. Reflective, Bischoff’s paintings are quiet, inviting contemplation. Muted tones carry this emotion across Orange Sweater; soft grey builds, contemplative, across the composition, changing subtly and in depth – allowing light to sing through a blind and the darkening of clouds to push against the window pane. Bright colour then announces itself poignantly, in the ellusive orange sweater and the green that sweeps below it, caught by the bars of the window. Brush strokes are bold; the hand of the figure, the reaching arms of the plant summoned in a casual flick of a brush. The figure in the distance takes this even further; a blur, their body is made up of lines and an oval head. Although the grey in the painting softens, its effect is not cold: there is the warmth of creeping memory throughout, carried by the warm breath of yellow caught in the walls; ignited by the bright orange from the jumper, drawing us back to it once again.