This is a collection of short and curt exhibition reviews from (mostly) London galleries.
- Ksenia PedanRevisionCell Project Space, LondonCurated by Adomas NarkevičiusOn until 19 November 2023
Pedan’s paintings would rather be anything but. Their surfaces, rendered on board that looks as if attacked with an angle grinder, betray little. They hang above eye level, as though to discourage close inspection. The gallery, likewise, isn’t like a gallery. Lengths of electrical cabling cross the walls without reason. Crude boxing conceals the radiators and budget light fittings shine directly into the visitors’ eyes.
But a false wall that oddly covers an altar on which a bird abandoned its nest reveals that all this is a shoddy cover-up, a botched renovation in which the builders cut corners before rushing off to their next job. Everything’s a little sub-standard in that way one begrudgingly gets used to but can never truly overlook.
Even the paintings use the pseudo-neutral palette and form of a mid-range interior design catalogue that rejects lasting meaning. But their marks slowly become discernible: a dense forest, a pile of bones, an hourglass turning dust to dust. In this eerie environment, they demand reverence and reward it with stories of death and disaster that resist any rushed renewal.
- Marina Abramović7 Deaths of Maria CallasENO, LondonOn until 11 November 2023
Does self-obsession make a diva or is it the product of her fame? It would be unfair to appraise this line-up of arias from Verdi, Bizet, and Puccini sung by seven sopranos as an operatic production because their perfectly competent renderings are mere footnotes to Abramović’s narcissism who is the work’s only protagonist. Thankfully, this prima donna doesn’t sing but her body constantly dominates the stage in giant projections that humiliate Tosca and Carmen as if their deaths were nothing compared to Marina’s.
When the heroine speaks, she spouts nonsensical last words which confirm that cynical grand delusion has been the Abramović method for decades. This has none of the charm of Norma Desmond, none of the heartbreak of Norma Jane Baker, and none of the dramatic charge of Bellini’s Norma, either.
Not content with her stardom – and this production is a testament to the unchanging nature of showbusiness – Abramović wants to destroy all performance and all women until she holds the monopoly over stage death. But this abuse is only for vanity because Marina trades any pretence for the crowd’s mindless cheer. And it’s on us that we prefer a train crash over a fall from grace.
- Karrabing Film CollectiveNight Fishing with AncestorsOn until 14 January 2024
Karrabing seems like a model grassroots political art project until one pays any attention to its content. Thirty indigenous Australians run around with cameras and retell the myths of their ancestors in a fantasy freestyle havoc. Most of the films hinge on the ‘white man’ who comes and steals or otherwise disrupts the sacred equilibrium between nature and the Emmi people. In many, the moral is that this white man should be punished, perhaps violently, and ideally by the Emmi. Reactionary calls for a race war are as near as explicit.
But one has to study the film credits to understand that all this is not a spontaneous uprising. Except for the stories – and mind that every culture has myths of external aggressors – the whole enterprise is produced and underwritten by a bunch of Australian academics. The entire project’s life in the art world thus hinges on the Emmi’s continued misery and the even more pernicious myth that they are forever the model victims of the Australian nation-state. Little separates this display from a human zoo complete with curators who occasionally kettle-prod the once noble savage into a spectacular rage.
- Nicole EisenmanWhat HappenedWhitechapel Gallery, LondonOn until 14 January 2024
Eisenman’s oeuvre, presented here chronologically, invites sympathy to begin with. The painter was a war artist to the subcultural and sexual shenanigans of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1990s. Imagine a wall’s worth of orgiastic sketches (Viz magazine but in oil paint) and you’ll wish you’d dropped out of the same art school. A decade later, when Eisenman’s midlife crisis coincided with America’s brutal political reawakening, her interest turned to the lone figure. As she mourned the loss of youth and relationships, her cartoonish affectations gave way to Holbein, Breughel, and Bacon.
But come Tea Party time, the tables turned and Eisenman has since used her canvases to warn, not plead. There’s a Bosch hellscape dedicated to Trump, a scene with a red-hatted MAGA chud, and a whole “basket of deplorables” polishing their guns in a prepper cell. The exhibition’s finale is a reproduction (!) of a group portrait of Eisenman’s art world friends lounging in a park to protest police violence that would fascinate an anthropologist.
These works lack the universalism of Eisenman’s earlier practice. Instead of confidence, they breed paranoia. And it, in turn, casts doubt on the earlier work’s daring.
- Esteban JeffersonMay 25th, 2020On until 14 January 2024
Despite the artist’s and the gallery’s best efforts, Jefferson’s paintings betray the show’s stated purpose. Already from the title (the day of George Floyd’s killing), this project wishes to reactivate the anticolonial and antiracist critique of memorials in the public realm that dominated 2020’s summer of violence and iconoclasm.
Masterful but ghostly pencil panels of public statues and edifices in New York to which the artist added evolving oil overlays of graffiti form the bulk of the show. One series tracks the removal in 2021 of Theodore Roosevelt’s horseback statue from the American Museum of Natural History. Another looks at the boarded-up façade of a Dior store and the shuttered front of a Brooklyn deli.
But because many of the subjects are also the objects of art history – in one picture, David Hammonds’ 1990 African-American Flag – Jefferson must treat them as such and they run away from him. The graffiti marks are too exuberant and luminous, and their presence confusing. But that’s only for the better because these interventions breathe a life of their own into the artefacts Jefferson would have us condemn. This exhibition is thus a warning to would-be propagandists: trust art at your peril.
- Asami Shoji et al.Gestures of ResistanceA.I., LondonOn until 25 November 2023
In this run-of-the-mill commercial group show, the bijou paintings by Asami Shoji are as playful as they are haunting. In one, Cerberus stands at the shore of the Styx dreaming that he, too, could one day be free from his fate but nobody throws him a ball. In another, a reclining nude anxiously waits to meet her fate with a lion but Saint Jerome is nowhere in sight. There’s a scene caught in the wings of the ballet stage that could be the start of a gang rape, a death dance, or a tender embrace. The figures appear as though in x-ray and helplessly foretell their own ends.
The acute sepias, yellows, and greens rendered on gesso and clay surfaces hide ghostly narratives. Following these stories between the works of five other artists makes them even more intriguing. In one panel, a boy reaches out as if to probe Christ’s wounds. On second glance, the allegory is even richer and more confusing. On third, the tale starts over again.
- RE/SISTERSBarbican, LondonOn until 14 January 2024
There are two reasons to see this show. One is that it collects so many must-see works that you might not have seen some of them before. The other is that the exhibition is a Johnsonian effort to catalogue the modern-day cult of Gaia and you might never have known without it that all female artists are gentle nags.
Unparadoxically, these are also reasons not to see this show. The works are ‘diverse’, but most feel the same as the next. Too many deadpan landscape photographs turn intrigue into fatigue and into paralysis. And this anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-male dictionary of environmental resistance is even more biased than the one it seeks to replace.
And that’s a pity because why we insist that women are and will save the Earth is forever intriguing. Individually, each practice on show could choose to worship or dance on Gaia’s altar. But in this Hades, the works fall prey to other agendas that call for dull slogans, not myths.
- Justin CaguiatDreampopModern Art, LondonOn until 4 November 2023
This is the sort of exhibition that makes a critic question the quality of their judgment. In principle, Caguiat’s large-scale abstract canvases shouldn’t feel this alluring. The paintings are filled with splodges of colour that resemble Van Gogh’s starry sky as if seen through a kaleidoscope. The surfaces are at times too busy and some look like children’s book illustrations in which all shapes and colours have swapped place.
But for this precisely they are arresting. At first, they become detective stories: squint to see Bosch’s Last Judgment in one and follow another to Toulouse Lautrec’s Montmartre. The critic brain rebels at this trick, but it only draws the eye closer until it understands that the paint itself is an abstraction. It takes a moment for the senses to recover from this illusion and when they are restored, the shapes and colours emerge with an entirely new logic of their own.
- Choon Mi KimACID—FREEEEGinny on Frederick, LondonOn until 28 October 2023
Some forms of abstraction simply scream ‘my kid could have made that’. Choon Mi Kim’s work looks like the result of an idea the artist had as a sixteen-year-old while doodling with one of those multi-coloured BIC pens. Sadly, the idea only degraded with access to a canvas. The paintings are marked sparsely with long strokes that meet at acute angles in colour transitions that suggest the brushes gradually getting dirty. Occasionally, traces of another idea appear: gestures of calligraphy, some emoji.
The gallery’s method to compensate for this immaturity (Kim only left art school this Summer) is to give no context for the endeavour in the hope of cultivating an air of mystery. That may work commercially. But it’s not likely to help the work grow.
- Atiéna R. KilfaPrimitive TalesCabinet, LondonOn until 11 November 2023
This is an uninspired re-staging of Kilfa’s intriguing installation at Camden Art Centre, only assembled opaquely and with a couple of extra but missable works.
- Lutz BacherAYE!Raven Row, LondonCurated by Anthony HubermanOn until 17 December 2023
There’s joy in repetition. Bacher was a master of the animated gif – a fragment of reality so brief that it must be examined recurrently – long before TikTok colonised the trope. The show starts at the beach where Tereza from The Unbearable Lightness of Being repeatedly asks her lover if he’s happy. Judging by the tones of the piano in the background, he must be, but we’re swept away to the start of the sequence before any happiness occurs. Back indoors, Leonard Cohen continually tries to launch into one of his ballads but runs out of time. Roberta Flack vocalises Killing Me Softly so many times that her voice turns dissonant and hurts. Then Andy Warhol’s Empire crumbles even though Bacher made multiple copies. And as if this wasn’t frustrating enough, she plays the bells from Princess Diana’s funeral on repeat and to no conclusion.
Bacher’s trick is so disarmingly simple that its repeated deployment slips up the brain’s internal clock. It’s easy to get lost in this infinite scroll – indeed, there may be one or two works too many in this show – but unlike the one on a phone screen, this one braces the entire body. There’s joy in repetition.
- ChristoEarly WorksGagosian Open, LondonCurated by Elena GeunaOn until 22 October 2023
There are a handful of artists in the canon of contemporary art who are so keenly rewarded for their monumental productions that they forget the work they made before they made it. Christo became a household name in the 1980s when he started wrapping islands, bridges, and buildings in shiny fabrics – a practice that even he admitted was mostly administration – and with this habit cured his earlier addiction to wrapping everyday objects in sheets of fabric and plastics. And he wrapped everything: shoes, jerry cans, a child’s pram, typewriters. He even wrapped ‘packages’ – objects which had already been wrapped – and paintings.
Gagosian’s sexy marketing of Christo’s 1950s and 60s wraps in the quirky ‘open’ space of an unrenovated 18th-century Huguenot house in East London may just save this artist from art history’s cruel type-casting of his practice as ‘environmental’ or ‘political’. They’re made of the right materials which aged as though to fit perfectly next to Beuys’ felt piano. And the show is sure a joyful crowd pleaser. But Christo himself lost faith in these objects. To appreciate them truly against his wishes, one must forget his later stunts. That would require more goodwill than the art market has for anyone.
notes and notices are inspired in form and attitude by Manhattan Art Review.