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London March 2009

Tate Modern

I found the Tate to be as ho-hum as the contemporary section of Paris’ Pompideau.  The main show here is a survey of Roni Horn.  Very effete and her work is so personally self-indulgent that I felt ripped-off paying to witness a wasted artistic career.
In the main Turbine Hall is an installation by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster called TH.2058 which postulates London’s response to 40 days of never ending rain.  It is a time when monumental sculptures are brought indoors along with reading materials and bunk beds for the saturated inhabitants.  A giant movie screen plays a pastiche of cuts from Fahrenheit 451, Zabriskie Point, The Last Wave, Soylent Green, THX 1138,  etc.  The whole of the Tate Modern experience can summed by this huge 2001 sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan.


Further upriver at the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre was a quite enjoyable installation by the Japanese artist, Ujino Muneteru, who in 2003 formed a “band “ called Rotators consisting of household appliances (blenders, power tools, lamps) all controlled by a DJ record platter fitted out with pegs like a player piano.  The marvelous “music” and “action” called to mind the fancy of Jean Tinguely’s mechaniques and the ideas of the Italian Futurists.

Wallace Collection 

Four generations of the Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace filled the Hertford House on Manchester Square with the largest and finest collection of art ever assembled by one family.  From paintings to swords to armor this mansion is chock full of stuff.  I did not spend long here but saw fascinating things (like 3-D sculptural paintings from the 18th century) hung salon style.  This collection has fascinated Brits since it was started by the mistress of George IV.

Tai-Shan Schierenberg

The only contemporary galleries I went to on this day were along Cork Street in Mayfair. Most of the best stuff I saw was by American artists (like Al Held and recent Joe Goode’s at Waddington).  The abstract paintings by this woman showing at Flowers were the best new stuff to my eye.  But I have yet to really jump into the contemporary gallery scene.  I did get a copy of the “New Exhibitions” guide for London and there are more galleries here than can be believed.  Over the next week or more I intend to get to most of them.

Hans Holbein (1526)

This day my first stop was the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square.  Their holdings are well maintained and loved.  I spent some time surveying their digital catalog of holdings and felt it to be high in quality but a bit slim for a “national treasure trove”.  The Brits love Turner - I say why bother?  Their Canalettos are without equal.  They’ve the usual trove of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionists but their holdings in Germanic and Scandinavian artists is slim.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 - 1543) is superbly represented.  Picture taking in the museum is forbidden so this picture is in poor focus due to my hasty, purloined snap.

Richard Wathen

Showing at Max Wigram on New Bond Street, this artist’s paintings are oil on canvas that has been glued to aluminum for absolute rigidity.  I found myself wondering if this was Gainsborough 300 years later.

Annely Juda

Annely is still on Dering Street - but now has the two top floors.  There is a big, fixed crane above the clerestory windows that allows for large art to be hoisted up 4 floors.  .This city has lots-o-galleries. The balance of this afternoon until 6 pm was spent gallery crawling through western Westminster.  It is a tremendous way to see and intimately interact with the city.   My biggest problem is spending too much time talking with the dealers.  So many galleries; so little time  Then again that is why I am here for 10 days.  I will try to share what I find that is both interesting to me and representative of what current British artists are doing.  I will try to limit my reportage to the British perspective.

Andy Stewart

This artist opens tomorrow at Sarah Myerscough on Brooks Mews. He has written a bunch of rubbish about finding Helen Frankenthaler inspirational. I don’t see her ghost in his painting but I do see that he does indeed “revel in the ecstasy of being”.

Don Brown

These cast acrylic composite and gesso sculptures are modeled after the artist’s wife.  His interest is in representational perfection - of course it is his idea of what constitutes visual perfection that makes the work arresting.  This artist reminds me of the late LA sculptor Robert Graham.  Unlike Graham there is much more enigma in Brown’s work.  This exhibition is at Sadie Coles HQ on South Audley Street.

Mount  St. Gardens

Every so many  blocks in the wealthier sections of central London are public squares/parks or smaller semi-private green spots.  I can only imagine what they must offer when in full leaf.  English gardens are their own particular art.

Miriam Escofet

It is Thursday and another brilliant, sunny day.  All the fair skinned English are sporting sunburns.  At 61 degrees it borders on being too hot.  Most of the images posted from today are going to be of art - since galleries was what I did all afternoon.

This artist showing at Albemarle Gallery (on Albemarle St.) paints fastidious oil on canvas on board.  This style of precision realistic painting has never been unappreciated even if it fails to be glossy art magazine/critics choice material. 

Sebastian Brajkovic

Showing in a new gallery (carpentersworkshop gallery on Albemarle) run by young Frenchmen this chair and others of the same ilk are jaw-dropping.  The faux wood framing for the quite functional chair is cast bronze and the cloth upholstery derives its color from embroidered thread.  In a word - phenomenal. 

Roy McMakin

At Established & Sons on Duke St. in St. James I happened on this first European show of work by Roy McMakin.  Lest we forget, the now famous Roy got his start and MFA at UCSD.  I had a long conversation with the gallery director.  Between talking with her and Julien of carpentersworkshop I came away with the distinct impression that fine art furniture is only now being considered here in the arts realm rather than the craft world.  Wendy Maruyama and Dave Fobes need to drop both these galleries a line.

George Baselitz

Baselitz (call him the elder German given his 40 year career) is showing sixteen new large paintings at White Cube Mason’s Yard.  His trademark upside-down figures are still present - but the color palette and economy of gesture demonstrate his active pursuit of the painter’s art.

Jennifer Wen-Ma

Showing at Haunch of Venison on Burlington Gardens is a huge group show. This artist’s piece is a pixilated moving image projected on smoke that issues from the base of the Hindu Buddha’s hand.

I learned just yesterday that the gallery takes its name from the short street/court called Haunch of Venison here in London (they probably first started there).  The gallery has a branch in NYC but I am most familiar with them through their branches in Zurich and Berlin.  They now occupy the former Museum of Man just behind the Royal Academy.  At two stories and a zillion square feet of space they have installed a huge (I would guess 50 artist) show thematically divided to echo the ethnographic spirit of the former museum.  My stand-out favorite in this show are two new videos by Bill Viola.  Too bad I cannot share Viola’s brilliance and mastery as shown here.  I would call him a spiritual genius.


The great feature of gallery crawling is getting to cover so many streets and alleyways.  I have two of the large 20x30 inch gallery guides - one opened and folded so one side shows and the other opened and folded to the other side.  So I can look at the map on the one side and read the addresses on the other without unfolding and flipping.  Couple that with a very good focal London pocket map published by Knopf and my innate ability to find my way and efficiently construct serpentine walks and I can knock off 39 galleries just this afternoon.  Many galleries are upstairs and in obscure places with poor signage that without fortitude would for all intents be non-existent.  My reward is to see “behind” and “between”.  And a huge reward are the focused and intense conversations shared with the dealers who are locked in their daily world; happy to talk to the foreigner with stories of his own. 

Michael Bauer

While Mayfair and Marylebone streets are clogged with Bentleys and Maseratis the streets near Aldgate East are the warehouses of London’s garment district.  Here the folks on the street are Indo-Asian and the women wear chadors.  There are not the number of galleries and they are spaced more widely apart.  But the industrial spaces are cheap, large and facilitate curatorial adventure.  I just began to crack this district very late this afternoon planning on where I was to eat.  Most galleries out in east London are only open Friday and Saturday so the next two days I will be heading further afield.  I will dress down. 

Michael Bauer is German and showing at Hotel on Greenfield Road, London E1.

Djhordje Ozbult

This Serbian artist is now a Londoner.  It ain’t tremendous work and it has certainly been improved by the magnificent installation by the dealer at the helm of the Herald St. Gallery.  There are three galleries in this block - all very rough on the exterior and rough on the interior.  Parenthetically, Wolfgang Tillmans’ studio is in this building.

Sarah Davis

This artist is American, got her MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993, and is now showing at Fred Gallery on Vyner St.  Vyner St. has many galleries carved out of the catacombs of industry.  Most all the artists seen today seem rough and hopeful.  Sort of like South La Cienega in LA.

John Keane

I have organized what has ended up being a very efficient and fairly comprehensive way to see contemporary art in the galleries of London.  Like Paris, I don’t think I can explain to someone else how to “do it.”  One really core issue is that London is not laid out in an orthogonal grid - and streets can change names several times along their not very straight course (just like Paris).  The art scene in London is very large.  I would guess there to be about 500 galleries if you include all the little tiny spaces that show artists who are emergently emergent (I went to a gallery today where the “artist” and his buddy drank a different bottle-brand of bourbon each night for 7 nights running and then “painted” a Ruscha-style word picture using that particular brand of booze.  And I got to stand and watch a “performance“ video in the subterranean space where this creative process took place.).  Narrowing things down to the serious galleries that might be here in two years, there may be 150 venues.  By the time I am done with this trip I suspect I will have actually set foot in over 200 galleries.  I have a pedometer and even using the Tube and buses I clock about 7 miles per day of walked steps.

The VERY best gallery guide is the large New Exhibitions guide (they don’t list everything and seem to have some sort of editorial quality-judgment operating.).  Artupdate.com has a clear map but is too slim on coverage.  Galleries is a waste of glossy paper and virtually useless.   The East London art map is exhaustive and cluttered with minutiae - though can be a reasonable amplification of how to get where in East London.  It is my 30 years of gallery trolling experience and knowing who to ask and then pay attention to for recommendations that helps make the process accomplishable.

John Keane is showing at Flowers on Kingsland Road.  Flowers has two spaces in this city and used to have a Bergamot Station space.  I laughed out loud seeing this juxtaposition of Darwin with a chimp.  He is a very good painter and should not  be judged by this simple juxtaposition. 

Marcus Harvey

The installation of Harvey’s very large sculptures at White Cube Hoxton Square is tremendous.  I snapped this picture just after this guard sternly told me “No pictures!”  Timing is everything. The sculpture is a rendition of a famous Winston Churchill bust with added Mohawk haircut.  Harvey also is showing a huge portrait of Margaret Thatcher, “Maggie”, constructed as a mosaic of about 15,000 plaster cast objects such as vegetables and sex toys.

Hoxton is probably my favorite borough in London.  There is a huge City College so there are lots of young people and it is ethnically very diverse.  Thousands of apartments speak to the reality of real-world shops and multi-ethnic restaurants.  Its intimacy struck me as a blend of my favorite sections of Paris and Amsterdam. 

Dan Mort

This artist is showing in an itsy-bitsy gallery called Museum 52 on Redchurch St.  The sculptural legitimacy reminds me of one of my favorite LA sculptors, Colleen Sterritt.

Richard Galpin

Galpin is showing at Hales Gallery on Bethnal Green.  The architectonic feel of the work probably comes from the fact that this is one large photograph of a place in which the artist has peeled/cut-away/removed parts of the emulsion of the image.

I had a most warm and energetic conversation with the dealer Paul Hedge.  Small world that it is - he has sold work to the La Jolla Museum - err the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego - and is trying to interest Mary Beebe of UCSD’s Stuart Collection in work. My conversation with him is, to date, my most memorable and informative in London.

Nathaniel Mellors

Monday I spent 4 hours at Tate Britain.  I did not expect to be so thoroughly engaged.  The Tate Triennial, Altermodern, is curated by the founding director of the Palais de Tokyo (the Musee d’Art Moderne) in Paris.  He chose 28 artists to fulfill his thesis on “what’s next” after the “closure” of Post-Modernism in the new global age.  What a bunch of drivel from an art’s professional demonstrating active construction of new territory (read: creating a new act in his job description so as to stay employed through obfuscation).

Of the 28 artists only one distinguished themselves (with Nathaniel Mellors being came-close-but-shot-himself-in-the-foot).  The vast majority fulfill a too common tendency to seek the spotlight rather than putting in the time to develop the craft of their profession.  Most of these artist think that they can give natural science, sociology; literature new meaning.  They have something to offer that professionals in these disciplines have overlooked?  It is like a kid burning an ant with a magnifying glass - thinking he has discovered a new energy technology.

Mellors has installed a multi-platform “story” development.  The sculpture shown below is quite creative as it an animatronic sculpture (moving eyes, jaws, heads) that speaks the language of coprophilic cannibals.  Oh boy!  The only reason to take that spin is to be sure somebody takes notice - the John Wayne Gaycy of the art world.

The successful artist is Peter Coffin who selected and hung conventionally, seven works (painting and sculpture from the Tate collection) in a dark room and then put projectors to work creating a geometric light show that tightly focused its projection upon the works in a visual syncopation accompanied by a soundtrack.  I have never seen such extravagantly successful use of new media.  Again, I wish I could translate my experience to words and visual record.

George Stubbs (1724-1806)

I am learning art history by standing in front of the art of the last 2000 years.  Such a long period is why it has taken me the last 30 years to learn the fraction of that history I know.  My education took a huge step forward through my hours at the Tate and learning about 300 years of British painting from 1600 to 1900.  That was the period when British artists affected the whole of Western art making.

The current “Van Dyck and Britain” show has been a key lesson.  Before the 17th century Europe looked to Flanders (and Italy) for its artistic masters (for example Hans Holbein the Younger).  Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) was a young Flemish artist from Antwerp who came to England to stay, until his death nine years later, as the principal court-painter for Charles I.  He changed the world forever - not because of his typical subject depicting rulers and nobility - but because of his skills as a painter.  Never before had painters been so able to capture a spirit/personality in their subject.  Van Dyck’s portraits have tremendous luminosity - from the sumptuous visual tactility of flowing satin robes to translucent skin colored by the bluish blush of subcutaneous vascularity. 

The important 18th century British painters: Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Stubbs studied and were profoundly influenced by van Dyck.  Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” (in the collection of the Huntington in Pasadena) is taken from and is an homage to a painting by van Dyck.  On his death bed, Gainsborough’s last uttered words were “van Dyck”. 

The 19th century British painters Singer-Sargent, Constable, and Turner were similarly influenced.  Even the late 19th century Symbolists and Pre-Raphaelites (Rosetti, Millais, Alma-Tadema) were in van Dyck’s sway.

Wow - my four hours standing before van Dyck and then the Tate’s permanent collection of British art was deeply educational.

Turner (1825)

I looked at the Tate Turners (1775-1851) and began to have an appreciation for his importance in moving painting from realism to abstraction.  It took seeing his watercolor on paper paintings for me to “get it“.  Turner showed the possibility inherent in color and in paint to evoke an emotional response.  Constable was close - but Turner took painting into the modern world of abstraction as we know it.

Graham Sutherland (1903-1980)

I spent my last hour in the National Portrait Gallery.  I have always loved portraits as a way to understand the power of painting, history, and personality.  Nowhere else in the world is portraiture more developed and regarded than Britain.  The National Portrait Gallery is a unique experience.  In the accompanying wall text, the British history of science, industry, humanities, business, and war is told through thousands of portraits of British citizens.  In addition, thousands of artists are credited and cataloged in telling that story. 

Graham Sutherland was an important and affecting landscape painter I much appreciated at the Tate.  This is his self portrait.

Marwan Rechmaoui

My first stop this Tuesday was to the Saatchi Gallery in Sloane Square.  What a very nice, proper, sophisticated and ritzy neighborhood.  Every time I have gone to the Saatchi, the gallery has been in a different location.  Four years ago they were in County Hall on the Thames next to the London Eye. I thought that exhibition space was super.  This new space is over-the-top wonderful.  Maybe it has to do with its affiliation with Phillips de Pury and the not so hidden agenda of art and market.  Nonetheless this gallery is one of London’s premier exhibition spaces.

This sculpture by the Lebanese artist, Rechmaoui, is a precisely embossed rubber, detailed map of contemporary Beirut.  (That is a city that is VERY high on my travel list.)  

Diana Al-Hadid

The current exhibition at the Saatchi is called “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East”.  There are twenty artists and the show is tremendous. I left feeling that these artists are responding to a reality in their lives with which many of the Western contemporary artists I have seen have no equality of experience.  In comparison with much of the vacuous crap I have seen the last days - this work generally has a purpose and experience set it is responding to.  I was able to learn through this work about life in Tehran, Beirut, Syria, Iraq. Most of these artists still live and work in their homeland - some have emigrated.  This is a curated show and probably not balanced.  Life under Saddam Hussein was not and life under the Iranian clerics is not - clean and morally upright as Muslim teachings would proffer.

Hadid is Syrian now living in NYC.  This artist uses towers in her work as thematic investigations of both the Tower of Babel and the World Trade Center.  Her sculptures are very successful independent of their political interpretations. 

Jeffar Khaldi

An overwhelming insight that most of the artists in this exhibition share is the very sad, arduous, and unequal life borne by Muslim women.  That view is presented by both the women and the men.  In my mind that is the great failing of Muslim culture - the disenfranchisement of women. 

Khaldi does not consider himself a political artist and his imagery is more personal.  But in his work, there is no escaping the landscape of occupation in Palestine.  

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu

At the basement level is this funny and poignant installation by the Chinese collaborators Yuan & Yu.  Geriatric and decrepit stand-ins for the world’s leaders are in motorized wheelchairs.  The chairs roll about the gallery colliding into each other in never ending bumper-chair, pachinko-like futility.

Gerhard Richter 1965

I went back to the National Portrait Gallery to see the Richter “Portraits” show.  I think Richter is one of this generation’s legitimate masters.  But seeing just this set of portraits was a bit of a let down compared to seeing them within the context of his large exhibition in Washington, DC in 2003 (a 40 year survey produced by MOMA and traveled).

It is also curious to see the Richter portraits in the context of this National Portrait Gallery.  As I have said the British are big time into portraits and I too like portraits for all the reasons Richter negates their usual purposes and strengths. To quote Richter, “… you realize you can’t represent reality at all - that what you make represents nothing but itself and therefore is itself reality.”  “A portrait must not express anything of the sitter’s soul, essence or character.”  That helps explain why in the final analysis Richter is a abstract painter and a excellent one at that. 


That’s it.  The afternoon was sunny and very brisk.  I had a wonderful time.  I think London is smashing.


Doug Simay March 2009

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