Review – East Wing X – Courtauld Institute – April 2012

Here’s a short piece I wrote on the current East Wing show for Courtauld Reviews, a student-led periodical of contemporary exhibition reviews published at the Institute each term:

EWX is slick, coherent, and well managed, with a roster of exciting artists – many of them newly established – and a particularly strong visual identity (perhaps the best yet?). The emphasis on serial and large-scale works has served to tie many of the Courtauld’s spaces to a single, consummate theme. Gabriel Dawe’s stunning thread piece – an apt placement of colour theory and materiality within the heart of the institute – is particularly successful. As a result however, less well considered parts of the Institute become pronounced; Rachel Whiteread’s beautifully understated assortment of cast boxes seems overpowered by a hotch-potch arrangement of less engaging works vying for attention within too small a space  Perhaps one of the seminar rooms would have suited this collection of pseudo-sculptures better? Similarly, SR2 seems to have been used to hang works that couldn’t or wouldn’t go anywhere else. On the whole though, the pieces all sit well together, united by a strong theme. The committee has struck a keen balance between filling the space and allowing enough pauses in the show’s narrative for us to consider the many spatial and material relationships it proffers. I would particularly recommend SR1, where an eclectic mix of media and ideas resonate across every wall.

The curators’ engagement with the history of the East Wing series is, as yet, a little underdeveloped. Their ‘official’ book, which celebrates the show’s first twenty years, doesn’t really present sufficient information on any of the previous exhibitions. Regardless of this, the inevitable test for EWX will be whether it continues to grapple with issues of materiality – a subject so ingrained in the present, ever-temporary ‘now’ – over the remaining fifteen months. If talks by Tom Hunter and Rebecca Stevenson have been anything to go by, it has been a promising start to a dialogue that will need continuous reassertion.

Review – Out of Focus at the Saatchi Gallery – London Student April 2012

Out of Focus is on from 25th April to 22nd July, 10am-6pm, 7 days a week

You can also find this review on the London Student website

Saatchi’s first major photography exhibition in a decade, and a self-styled cross-section of the world of photography now, Out of Focus collates the work of 38 artist/photographers whose diverse subject matter and approach to the medium offer a spectrum of delights within the space of the gallery.

As can be expected from the Saatchi curators, a staple selection of works include large-scale, brash pseudo-portraits (see Katy Grannan’s eyesore of a series in the first gallery) showcasing badly applied lipstick and ancient, wrinkled, blue-rinse tattoos. To be honest, I don’t mind them, they’ll soon be in American bank lobbies anyway (cynical, moi?). But, hold your breath, beyond these predictable hurdles you’ll find some acutely considered images by thoughtful and explorative artists, dotted through the show.

Noemie Goudal, who’s been around for a year or so on the main stage since graduating from the RCA (immediately into Saatchi’s hands), captivates me with her images of effected landscapes. Conventional by comparison with some of the artists exhibited she nevertheless subtly, quietly grapples with the photographic image as a means to record photography itself, reaching stalwartly into the constructed and psychological nature of the paradisical escape. She looks inward in a way few others in the show can or dare, and vastly outpaces the vulgar monochromatic mosaic pieces of her curatorial bedfellow in the gallery’s arrangement, Mat Collishaw, who’s own passé enlargements of newspaper cutouts-cum-facebook-photos are belligerent and selfish with the viewer’s vision.

Still, at least Collishaw demands an answer to what beauty in contemporary photography actually means. The works of some of the other exhibitors such as David Benjamin Sherry’s large acid-wash chromatic landscapes fall back on beauty as a refuge from the question ‘Why are you doing another Ansel Adams?’ This seems to cause a split in the show that remains unresolved, with interesting results. Is contemporary photography allowed to be beautiful, and if so is that all it needs to be? After all, its draw towards gritty reportage, visible in the work of Broomberg and Chanarin, can still produce some of the most stunning imagery we face within our increasingly alien but globalised community.

Taking on sexuality are photographers such as Michele Abeles and Laurel Nakadate, alongside veteran Ryan McGinley. The body as fetish, object, and pin-up is treated both in the camera lens and in post-production, though with mixed results; McGinley recaptures adolescent night-prowls and naked adventures with breathless magnetism, but Marlo Pascual’s less racy, torn female portrait turned leaning sculpture is a little underwhelming in it dulled and softened plexiglass form.

Most striking though is the inclusion of works that just aren’t photographs (if you think authorship is important) such as Collishaw’s, but more significantly those of John Stezaker. Although lifted wholesale and somewhat uninspiringly by the Saatchi curators from Stezaker’s recent Whitechapel retrospective, it is interesting to find his collage works are now so completely ingrained in contemporary photography, a realm he has skirted around for decades. Perhaps then, that is the show’s greatest success. It brings together a range of answers to the question of photography, some of which inevitably end with a collectible photograph, but many of which still want us to look at the underside, the edges, and whatever is caught (be it accidental, scripted, or contrived) in the middle.

Mariah Robertson’s stunning photogram experiments on a 70-meter roll of photographic paper take this to its extreme, producing a dazzle-camouflage of floor tiles and grid patterns in which the hiccups and bleeding edges are the raison d’être of the work. Repetition through variation akin to Len Lye’s forties film work cascades across the gallery floor. Photography as installation then, in the same space as photography as collage, and photography as site of contact; with light and material, mindscape, sexuality, and conflict. The show compounds all of them at once through a bricolage of disparate images that in many cases use photography as the barest of conjoining threads. Though this creates as many problems as it attempts to solve in its catch-all display, it returns us to a love of imagery itself. Saatchi is the only man who can give us such gavage, heaped on our plate and beckoning us to dive in. Vodka sponsorship aside, Out of Focus delights in retinal immersion; beauty, ugliness, and the questioning of it all.

Top: Yumiko Utsu

Octopus Portrait
2009
C-type print
55 x 44.5 cm
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
©Yumiko Utsu, 2009

Above: Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin
Culture 3 Sheet 72
2010
C-type print
150 x 190 cm
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
© Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, 2010