Wapping Project Summer Show

Steam-Bath-1984-Deborah-TurbevilleSummer season group shows can be a sluggish and bland affair, but the Wapping Project Bankside has brought together a clutch of work form their best international photographers for their end of season Gallery Artists’ Review. This looking back, forward and now seems well-suited to these last dog-end days of summer, as autumn looms with renewed responsibilities and fresh vigour.

Fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville, the 76-year-old New Yorker and regular contributor to Italian Vogue soaks her images in characteristic opiate nostalgia. Gazing mannequins and poised marionettes hang suspended in the powdery soft focus of ‘Steam Bath’, while others resonate in Eastern bloc tableaux, fading like retina burn behind a filmy surface as fragile as crumbling plaster. Fellow photographer and nonagenarian Lillian Bassman’s monochromatic pictures are often described as stylised and calligraphic, but these fashion images show miraculous and haunting beings, a touch vampish, shot against grainy clouds of backlight, like beautiful nocturnal creatures against the never dark sky of a white night. This eerie chord finds echoes in the precise and orchestrated interiors of young British photographer Annabel Elgar; ‘The Rally’ shows a grizzly bear’s head staked to the wall, it’s peeled open mouth  preaching at an empty makeshift outdoor auditorium with ghostly lectern and red chairs menacing in the near dawn light. In her world, smudged window panes, dirty sinks and cloudy mirrors absorb the light and whisper a gentle anxiety, similar to that of summer closing and the autumnal nights creeping slowly in.

Peter Marlow’s reportage series of filmic night shots of the East End document scenes of abandonment; from alleyways iridescent with the sheen of rain soaked concrete, to cars, construction sites and street corners. His images coerce the mundane quotidian furniture of life such as streetlights and pylons, window frames and bus shelters into narratives pregnant with suspense and intrepidation, as if seen through the eyes of a pulp fiction flaneur. Stephen J Morgan does something similar, but more kitsch and in muted technicolour , documenting  autobiographical details of working class, inner-city life such as the working man’s club in ‘Where my Grandfather Sang’,  that are reminiscent of Richard Billingham.  Morgan frames a lonely Madonna, staring beseechingly from her perch, nodding in the direction of two stills from Susan Meiselas’  Pandora’s Box series, where stilettoed hookers hang around in neo- baroque interiors, waiting for sex or recovering from it, boxed into carpeted rooms of sea blue crushed velvet, like mermaids trapped in formaldehyde.

Which leaves the cooling balm of Finnish photographer and filmmaker Elina Brotherus, next in line for a solo show at Wapping bankside, which opens on 16 September. Brotherus plays with landscapes and the body, documenting the lush glades and pools of her motherland, in scenes that echo 20th century late Impressionist painting. A refreshing invitation to Wapping Bankside’s autumn programme indeed.

Catherine McCormack

Louise Bourgeois at Hauser&Wirth

bour-11369-cb_lglr-L0Puf5It is a familiar sight at this time of year – a rather large spider has crawled indoors and taken up residency, provoking extreme reactions. The space in question is Hauser and Wirth’s latest gallery on Savile Row, and the gargantuan arachnid is bringing the crowds in rather than sending them cowering. It is the steel centrepiece of the gallery’s inaugural exhibition: Louise Bourgeois; The Fabric Works.

The ‘fabric works’ were created by Louise Bourgeois between 2002 and 2008. They comprise the last body of work the nonagenarian worked on before her death earlier this year, aged 98. Surrounding the spider – produced after its iconic 1999 counterpart, Maman – are the ostensible fruits of her weaving handiwork. As ever, Bourgeois’ late works are extremely autobiographically informed, but the spider (Crouching Spider, 2003) is not a reference to the artist’s own ego, but again to her mother. Bourgeois elucidates by saying:

“Like a spider, my mother was a weaver… Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences… spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

Like the fabled Arachne from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, fabric and weaving had been an influential motif in Louise Bourgeois’ life. As a child she was surrounded by the textiles of her parents’ tapestry restoration workshop and herself became a life long collector of clothes and household linens. It is these everyday cloth fragments that she has gathered and reworked into geometrically inspired collages. The nostalgic palette of ice cream and baby pastel candy stripe hues are innocently monogrammed with the initials LB, as if collating a trousseau of her life’s memories to take with her in her twilight years. Fabric is a convincing medium for the retelling of a personal narrative: it soaks up atmosphere, covers and protects the body while registering its sweat and tears, all the while inhaling the years of use into its weave.

In another section, abstract collages are stitched together like Modernist sea and sky-scapes. They are reminiscent of the views from Matisse’s window in the south of France, or indeed fabric reinventions of the experimental fields of colour that gave abstract expressionists Rothko and Barnett Newman such critical acclaim and commercial success in the 40s and 50s – eclipsing the endeavours of female artists such as Louise Bourgeois.

It is difficult not to see the work in this exhibition as being part of the canon of twentieth century feminist art; although gallery director Sara Harrison believes that Bourgeois was a lone figure who retained an acute sense of her own identity and aesthetic, and resisted falling in with any movement. She believes that her work is informed by ‘underlying themes of pain and a struggle to come to terms with her complex childhood family dynamic’ (her father made her governess his mistress).

Bourgeois herself was a woman whose artistic importance had been cloaked and concealed until late into her life, eclipsed by her husband’s career as a dazzling art critic. And despite the benign nature of the materials, the show is punctuated by moments of quiet horror, revealing the threatening demons that lurk behind the saccharine façade of female domestic tranquillity. A sinister fabric body (Single 2) – stitched from pieces of black and grey cotton – hangs suspended from the navel, with oversized trailing limbs stuffed like a surreal taxidermied diving suit. Two of the ‘cell works’ also feature; manifestations of caged psychic space in which bizarre and sinister objects reside.

And of course, the duplicitous spider, site of many fears and phobias, and yet symbolic of the weaving and nurturing mother seems representative of the hollow fears at the heart of domestic femininity, the conundrum of sanctuary and a slow death, trapped in its own web of sewing. An outstanding, and psychologically provocative opening for Hauser and Wirth’s new W1 space.

by Catherine McCormack

You can see this published here in Glass Magazine

Dance, Magic Dance

11.Imagine the best party you can possibly fathom in let’s say, 1920, with a guest list made up of the cream of artistic vanguards from the collective realms of literature, music, dance, fashion and art, in one of the most exciting places to be on the planet at that time. Add a punch of old world Russian glamour and verve, and you have the invigorating focus for the V&A’s autumn show;  Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes.

The exhibition charts the journey of artistic director and cultural impresario Serge Diaghilev and his troupe of dancers, who fled their native Russia on the brink of revolution. In doing so they unleashed their own creative revolution upon the modernist cities of Europe between 1909 and 1929 with the maxim: “Art is free, life is paralysed”.  It was in Paris that this tornado of modernist expression reached its apogee, with the various collaborations of Henri Matisse, Coco Chanel, Igor Stravinsky, Andre Derain, Joan Mirò, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, and was later felt throughout Europe and the USA through associations with James Joyce, Marcel Proust and TS Eliot before Diaghilev’s untimely death in 1929.

As can be expected at the V&A, costumes and textiles take centre stage, ranging from the fauvist prints of Matisse proudly emblazoned on tunics, to photographs of the bathing costumes designed by Coco Chanel for the 1924 production of Le Train Bleu; written by Jean Cocteau and named after the eponymous night train from Paris to the French Riviera. It is the same ballet’s proud curtain however, after 80 years in storage, that steals the show. Pablo Picasso, the ubiquitous agent provocateur of the period, designed the curtain backdrop for the ballet, after Diaghilev saw his painting Two Women Running on a Beach.

The curtain itself, stretching at over 34ft, was described by a former Diaghilev dancer as both “moving and alive”.  Amazons as monumentally worthy of any Michelangelo ceiling soar weightlessly across it; brazenly ecstatic in their empty landscape, like figureheads sailing triumphantly into the unknown seas of the new century,  yet so tragically unaware of the horrors that man’s new age would bring.

This proud piece is juxtaposed with the largest object in the V&A’s collection; a tapestry glittering with the onion domes of an imperialist Kremlin, designed for the 1910 ballet The Firebird. Illuminations and projections dance around the surrounding walls like the opening to a Bond film, silhouettes burning white against an avant-garde rainbow of sound and movement. It is the fiery liberation of dance as an art form, unshackled from its sentimental and cloying traditions of the previous century.

For the uninitiated, it becomes quickly apparent that this is not the ballet as experienced through the Impressionist pastels of Degas, but an exotic, disarming concoction that had riots erupting in the aisles of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées in 1913, with tangible evidence of the dancers’ provocative fervour in the cabinet of bruised ballet shoes in the second gallery.

The impact of the Ballet Russes in an age of political and social upheaval has not been forgotten, and to accompany the
exhibition echoes of this inspiration are on offer ranging from Tata Naka’s Firebird T-shirt to Erdem’s silk scarf inspired by the art nouveau patterns of the ballet Narcisse. In amongst these thrilling visual fragments of past creativity is perhaps the most evocative reworking of the Ballet Russes aura: a scent by Roja Dove, named ‘Diaghilev’, that reawakens the heady mix of bygone magic.

Catherine McCormack

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes is at the V&A, London, until 9 January 2011.
All images courtesy © V&A Images
This post was published here in Glass magazine