Saturday, March 21, 2009

Top 3 new (and free) art galleries

1. Raven Row - Ray Johnson
We headed east to Alex Sainsbury’s (yes, the supermarket guy - his dad Lord Sainsbury did the National Gallery’s Sainsbury wing dontcha know) new Raven Row gallery, just off Bishopsgate. A lot of money has been spent (some £30m!) turning this 18th century silk merchant’s townhouse into a magnificent exhibition space. Lots of original period details have been kept, such as fireplaces, fittings, cabinets and plasterwork, making it feel a lot homelier than, say, nearby White Cube (which we also visited just to see Margaret Thatcher’s face made out of dildos). Painted white throughout (you can still smell the paint) and with floorboards bare, make no mistake: this is still an East End Gallery.

Its first exhibition is the somewhat obscure (though I’ve had a great book about him for years) pop artist, no – chop artist, no – flop artist, no – mail artist – shall we settle on uncategorisable? – Ray Johnston, who walked out to sea in 1995 and never came back. Consisting mainly of collages, drawings and his famous(ish) letters, Johnston could have been a cool graphic designer as well as artist. Seemingly ahead of his time, Johnston predates Warhol’s (and now everyone’s) obsession with celebrity culture by his Elvis collages (done in the 1950s) and compulsive cataloguing of famous people. But if he has a claim to fame it’s through his mail art, where he would post a collage, or annotated newspaper clipping, photo – in fact any printed matter, to a friend, colleague or indeed stranger. They would add to it, and send it back – hence the title of the exhibition.

There’s a great free booklet and two postcards (one shown above). But no shop or cafe.

2. Haunch of Venison - Mythologies
As a loose follow up to our Horniman visit, my boon companion and I found ourselves in a veritable cabinet of curiosities at the new Haunch of Venison exhibition, now round the back of the Royal Academy in Burlington Gardens (where the old Museum of Mankind used to be). More of a move than a new gallery – the old Haunch of Venison used to be in a yard (Haunch of Venison yard, in fact) off Bond Street. The new building is very grand and spacious but – like the old Saatchi gallery at County Hall on the South Bank – whether it is a suitable space for art is another matter. We found ourselves more interested in the beautifully ornate ceilings than some of the art – never a good sign.

However… a coffin with stuffed birds trying to escape, their mouths wide open and little tongues almost screaming; stuffed dobermans with dead(er) dogs in their mouths; skeletons of Sylvester and Tweety, dead birds in matchboxes; massive blow-ups of dead butterflies – I haven’t felt as uneasy in an exhibition for some time.

Mythologies groups together over 40 international artists – including Damien Hirst, Bill Viola, Keith Tyson, Tony Cragg and design agency (!) M/M (the only ones I’d heard of) – to explore the ‘uncanny and extraordinary’, inspired by ethnographic and anthropological artifacts seen in museums. To us, it seemed as much inspired by horror films and contemporary fears.

No postcards but an expensive catalogue. And dead birds in matchboxes for £1000. And a rather nice pixel man candle by M/M for £50. But who would ever light a £50 candle? Small shop, mainly selling books.

3. The Saatchi Gallery - Unveiled: New art from the Middle East
The Saatchi Gallery reopened in its new location in the Grade II listed Duke of York’s headquarters on the Kings Road last year. Again, another great space for a gallery. Saatchi – never one to shy away from controversy – has mounted a survey of Middle Eastern contemporary art which could offend, well, how shall we put it, certain fundamentalist citizens – as well as your granny.

Doll-like sculptures of Tehran prostitutes, photos of naked homosexual Muslim men, photos of women with domestic objects covering their faces – all the artists are questioning the society of their homeland, whether it be Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia or Syria. We are familiar with much of the ancient art from these countries, from the pyramids and sculptures of ancient Egypt to the wonderful mosques of Syria, Iraq and Turkey but probably have little idea of what young contemporary artists are up to. There is a diverse range of mediums – from painting and photography to sculpture and installation. Much of the material used for the sculptures and installations is telling in itself: concrete breeze blocks, rubber tyres, silver foil and old clothes reflect the poverty and hardships encountered on a daily basis in these countries. It’s also telling that a lot of the artists are now living and working in Europe and the States.

Glossy catalogue booklet £1.50 with black and white photos. Set of 10 postcards £5. Decent shop.

Also seen… The Light Box - Anthony Caro and Eduardo Paolozzi
The Light Box is a beautiful newish (about a year old) gallery in, er, Woking. If this immediately puts you off, it’s understandable, as the gallery stands out like an oasis amongst the ugly concrete malls of the town. Still, it’s worth a visit – only 20 minutes out of London by train. Consisting of two smallish galleries and a museum of Woking (surprisingly interesting) and surrounded by glass (hence the name), I was assured that on a sunny day beautiful coloured light beamed through the coloured windows.

Eduardo Paolozzi is another favourite obscure pop artist of mine who worked in collage, screen printing and sculpture. That his mosaics adorn the interior of Tottenham Court Road tube station probably goes largely unnoticed. Just one room is shared by both Caro and Paolozzi at the Light Box – and can’t possibly do either of them justice. Having not read the literature either, I couldn't work out any similarities between the two artists (maybe that was the point). There was a very enthusiastic elderly woman working there as a volunteer who insisted I draw some of the sculptures (not just me, mind – there are clipboards with paper and coloured pencils encouraging this kind of thing). Five minutes later, when I showed her what I’d done she was even more enthusiastic, praising my abstract scribbles just a bit too much, and telling me she’d hang it up on the wall for all to see. Just don’t sell it for thousands of pounds, I told her.

Fairly unimpressive catalogue and posters available. Small unimpressive shop. Nice café.

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