Saturday, February 11th 2015
I am not sure when we last visited the Saatchi Gallery but it must have been a while ago. We thought we would go there today and see what was being shown. The current exhibition is Pangaea II: New Art from Africa and Latin America but in addition there are some other works on view including one, a favourite of mine, that is on permanent display.
We went by a rather circuitous route, just for the fun of it, crossing the Thames at London Bridge and changing buses in Southwark Street where I took the above photo. Food enthusiasts might recognize that we are close to the famous Borough Market.
Opposite the bus stop is the imposing Hop Exchange (opened 1868). Last year we were lucky enough to see inside and take a few photos (see Saints, hops and a pavilion). Hops are no longer bought and sold here and the magnificent building serves as offices.
On arrival at the Saatchi Gallery, rather than view the exhibition in a systematic way, we did what we usually do, taking the lift to the top and working our way down. There was a lot to see and it would be impossible to cover it all, so what follows is a selection of samples.
One small room was given over to an exhibit that we had seen before but which I like and was pleased to see. Though previously shown in other exhibitions, it fits in with the current one as the artist comes from Colombia. A crowd of giant ants swarms over the walls and the ceiling. Though their structure is simple – each is made from a pair of casts of a human skull joined together with a cloth-wrapped body with twigs for legs – they look realistic, if huge.
This work belongs to a class whose dimensions are given as “variable”. That is because the exact configuration of the work at any showing depends on the size and layout of the substrate, by which I mean the surface or surfaces to which it is fixed. The first time I saw it, the ants were swarming over the walls of a larger gallery but they have also been seen on the outside of buildings and in other contexts, dismissing the concept of an artwork of fixed shape and size. For more information on Rafael Gómezbarros and Case Tomada, see here. The title comes from a short story by Julio Cortázar about ants invading a house and means, literally, ‘house taken over’.
Why a group of three hats would be called a ‘nude’ I do not know. On some days that would bother me and I would have to try to find out. Today I am not in a bothering mood so I will just let it be. And so, indeed, with the rest of the exhibits that I show, commenting if I have something to say about them and not doing so if I haven’t. Anyway, for some more about Alexandre da Cunha and his hats – sorry, nudes – and other works, see here. Incidentally, this work sits somewhere in between a painting and a sculpture.
Some of the paintings in this exhibition are rather large. When you photograph them, you necessarily reduce them to whatever size the format of your blog (or computer screen) permits. You inevitably lose a good deal of the work’s drama and impact. That is why in some of these photos I have included some of the wall and the floor in an attempt to communicate something of the size of the work. It probably doesn’t succeed but, hey ho, we try.
You perhaps know my reluctance to embrace non-figurative works1 but maybe I am becoming soft because I quite like Broken City. And it isn’t really completely non-figurative: I think if you look at it carefully enough you do see suggestions of a city. Or is that like seeing pictures when staring into the embers of a fire? More about Ospina and his art here.
There were a number of paintings in the exhibition by Aboudia but this set of heads particularly attracted my attention. There is a family resemblance to them all but they are all different, one from another.
I called the set Untitled heads but I don’t think they have a collective name. Each seems to be called Untitled tête. Aboudia is from the Côte d’Ivoire and presumably French-speaking, hence the ‘tête’. By why ‘untitled’? Doesn’t French have a perfectly good phrase for that (sans titre)? Or perhaps ‘untitled’ is considered a technical term that requires to be left in English?
This is one of the largest spaces within the Saatchi and used to be used to advantage in showing the more gigantic works or collections. It has the added merit that you can view it both from floor level and higher up. To my surprise, this premium space has mutated into a shop. All galleries and museums like to have a shop and these no doubt make valuable contributions to their income but it seems a pity to use this space for such a purpose. Perhaps it’s a temporary measure and that big works will make a triumphant return in the next exhibition.
A couple a bight and colourful paintings by Federico Herrero. The top one is called Barco (‘Boat’) and the lower one is untitled. Barco does look vaguely boaty but we have no clues to guide us in the second one. To judge for the Saatchi’s discussion of this painter (see here), it has something to do with jumbled and chaotic towns such as San José where the artist grew up. It looks a bit more cheerful than Ospina’s Broken City.
This is a gigantic work of art as you can perhaps tell from the relative smallness of the people grouped at the far end. It is a rectangular heap of 97,000 blue plastic bags – the sort of bag that you may use to line your rubbish bin at home or in the office – each filled with unknown contents. The title suggests a clear-out, whether of rubbish or unsold goods, perhaps prior to quitting a business. Whatever the exact narrative, the meaning is clear, I think. The vast size of the heap suggests a catharsis of gigantic proportions. The artist, Jean-François Boclé, is originally from Martinique but currently resides and works in Paris (more here). For my money (and I am speaking euphemistically as there is no admission charge at the Saatchi), this was one of the more striking and fascinating exhibits, despite its simplicity of design. Of ‘variable dimensions’, it has appeared elsewhere in different configurations.
Eduardo Berliner lives and practises in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His paintings are figurative and sometimes disturbing (e.g. see Handsaw on his Saatchi page) – not that I would criticize him for that because one of the jobs of the artist is to disturb us and shake us out of our complacency. The two paintings above intrigue me for their unconventional viewpoints and the realism of the treatment. The closeness of woman and dog is cosy almost to the point of obsessiveness and there is a strange feeling of eroticism, especially in the right-hand picture.
One of the many things that can be said in favour of the Saatchi is that it provides plenty of space, as the above view shows. There is no overcrowding with works jostling for position. Works may nestle together in close proximity if they are supposed to, otherwise they are spread out and given room to breathe.
I have chosen just one work from this room, a characteristic example of the portrait works of Ephrem Solomon from Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). His figures are outlined in black, as though they were line drawings in paint, and the colour black abounds in their clothing, contrasting with yellow and grey backgrounds. They are watchful and unsmiling as though confronting an anxious present and a future without promise. (More here.)
These two artworks puzzled me at first sight. They looked so real that I was almost convinced that the artist must have dug up real trees and carefully brushed away the soil to preserve the root structure intact. On the other hand, they were so small, that it was hard to believe that they had developed such an extensive spreads of roots. Or were they perhaps the result of a sophisticated bonsai exercise? The fact is, however, that Entre Dos Aguas (‘Between Two Waters’) and De Mis Vivos y Mis Muertos (‘Of My Living People and My Dead’) are both fabricated out of wire, paper and some other materials. So are other pieces of a similar kind. The result is remarkably lifelike, though miniature, testifying to Jorge Mayet’s sharp eye for detail. (More on the Cuban artist here.)
The theme of trees is explored also by Diego Mendoza Imbachi but this time in the form of large painted canvases. The willowy yet strong trunks lead to eye upwards to branches, twigs and leaves that spread with the airy delicacy and intricacy of the finest lace. These drawings are as remarkable in their way as the three-dimensional objects made by Mayet.
Our gaze is drawn up (‘up’, in imaginative terms, deep into the canvas, in real terms) as to a glow of sun hidden behind cloud, a strange light of reverie. Are we seeing the present or the past or perhaps looking into the future? Maybe it is a mixture of all of these, of reality mythologized.
A tree turns into a space rocket. Or a space rocket sprouts branches. Which is it and does it matter, anyway? The hard categories of physics become malleable in the mind, and the grace of the artist is to make metaphor take shape before our very eyes.
While all the preceding works belong to the Pangaea II exhibition, my final work, Richard Wilson’s 20:50, also known by some as The Oil Room, is one of the few works that is on permanent display in the Saatchi Gallery. The title is a viscosity rating, that for a grade of engine oil. The exhibit consists of a room half full of used and discarded sump oil with a narrow metal walkway (not accessible by the public) leading into it. The black surface of the oil reflects the upper half of the room, causing a dizzying sensation when you first see it. Gradually you work out what it is you are seeing and thereafter it becomes familiar but (for me, at least) always extraordinary.
Our viewing of the “Oil Room” concluded our visit to the Saatchi Gallery but we shall return to see the next exhibition and, all being well, many exhibitions after that.
1For one thing, if the work is non-figurative then the artist, or his/her apologists, can recount any nonsense they like about what it means and you can’t contradict them. All interpretations of a non-figurative work are equally true and logic dictates that something that means anything you like it to mean actually means nothing at all. The meaning of an object is defined as much by restrictions (i.e. by what it cannot mean) as by what it purports to mean. Putting that succinctly: no limits; no meaning.