diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 13, 2024

I've been to see some art.

Art West: Serpentine Gallery

Many's the time I've traipsed to the middle of Kensington Gardens only to be underwhelmed. Thankfully this time it was well worth the effort.

★★★★☆ Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States (until 1 September)
Yinka did the Ship in a Bottle on the Fourth Plinth, if you remember. This varied exhibition finds him reimagining and interrogating Western iconography, which means colonialism is never far from the surface. In one room public statues including Churchill and generals on horseback are re-covered by a colourful African print, in another model buildings representing places of refuge glow brightly in the darkness. My favourite was the War Library where 2700 battles, treaties and conflicts are embossed on the spines of brightly-bound books, almost numbing in their number.

★★★☆☆ Judy Chicago: Revelations (until 1 September)
Meanwhile, across the Serpentine, this retrospective of feminist art is by 84 year-old Chicago-born Judy Chicago. Her works are varied and sharply-targeted, the most beautiful a lengthy mural depicting the creation of the Earth as a natural birth. Once you start looking at some of her more abstract images you see vaginas everywhere, entirely deliberately, which is either empowering or unsettling depending. Talent shines through throughout.

★★★☆☆ Minsuk Cho: Archipelagic Void (until 27 October)
The latest summer Pavilion, in a line stretching back to 2000, is a cleverly-sectioned five-pointed star. The longest arm is pink-windowed with lateral benches, so somewhere shady to sit in the shade, perhaps reading a book sourced from the second-hand library in arm two. The arm that's technically the main entrance plays a soothing Korean soundscape, while opposite is the inevitable cafe dispensing tea and scant cake. The shortest arm looks the most fun, a bright orange scramblenet on two levels, seemingly for children but I didn't see an upper age limit. The architect's brief here is always to provide a multi-function outdoor space, and perhaps stripping out each function separately is the route to success.

Art South: Studio Voltaire

★★★★☆ Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland (until 25 August)
Never previously coupled, here's a pair of artists to either stir the soul or deeply offend. Beryl is the Plymouth-based artist whose playfully plump ladies delighted millions, seen here propping up the bar, swanning around in furs or eyeing up a Royal Marine. The exhibition also includes a few of her preliminary sketches and a sheaf of typewritten letters, some in strong support and one from the Devon County Ladies Bowling Association expressing disgust at her cheeky characters wearing white shoes on a bowling green. Interspersed around the walls are black and white works by the homoerotic artist Tom of Finland. His muscled bikers and leather clones pushed the boundaries of 60s censorship, appearing in specialist magazines and later comic books, and were sometimes a front for a fully-endowed version available privately. Expect to see erectile genitalia in a minority of the works.

The coupling is genius, two artists grounded in oversized physiques best known for their portrayal of bulges. It also makes the shop quite fun, with its select collection of gifts from a stack of postcards to a £750 leathermen blanket. If you've never been to Studio Voltaire before it's in a former Methodist chapel round the corner from Clapham Common station, just past Sainsburys, attached to a cafe which evolves into a restaurant called Crispin at mealtimes. I'll be back.

Art East: Bow Arts

★★☆☆☆ 2024 Bow Open - A Personal Treasure (until 25 August)
The Nunnery Gallery is tucked away up an alley close to Bus Stop M, and every year curates an exhibition of works by artists in the adjacent studios. This year's assemblage isn't as outré as some, although Peppa Pig and a tin of Spam do make an appearance. The 33 exhibits range from textiles to ceramics via a piggybacking dinosaur, two trouserless gentlemen and wearable cake. The obvious centrepiece is Poems for Keeping Warm, a fireplace made from takeaway cartons inside which inscribed timbers have been burned, and apparently more will be if you turn up at the right time. Next weekend is Bow Arts' annual Open Studios when the full creative warren is thrown open for exploration, so that's probably the best reason to visit to be honest.

Art North: Central Saint Martins

★★★★★ Degree Shows (until 16 June)
They don't just study sculpture at Saint Martins College, they do fashion, fine art, jewellery, graphics, textiles, architecture, animation, biodesign and narrative environments too. And at the end of their third year the students put on a five-day event to showcase their designs and it's thrilling, not least because anyone can walk in off Granary Square and explore the four storey building beyond the unlocked turnstiles. Most of the work is spread out along the ground floor atrium but more is to be found (and enjoyed) upstairs in the workshops and creative spaces behind chunky swing doors.

The creativity on show is astonishing, both individually and collectively. In the jewellery enclave I marvelled at Tina Jiao's jade bangles, Dermot Fowler's faceted lenses and Johnnie Day's collection of invasive wristwear. In the product design workshop I admired the professionalism that 3D printing can bring to what in my day would have been a tacky hunk of plastic adorned with Letraset and/or Dymo labels. But mostly I loved the graphic communication aisle, an astonishing range of ideas gorgeously presented, from Anna Zanelli's Navigate Your Vote campaign to Tracy Zeng's immersive audio encouraging heritage awareness on the 390 bus. Every student's work is QR coded, thankfully, so rather than donning headphones I was able to delve into Tim Huckle's Trespassers Trail on YouTube after I got home.

The student concerned sometimes hangs around beside their work, not always confidently, although I'm pretty sure Haowen Zheng would have explained his collection of bread cameras if I'd dared to ask. The only other fifty-somethings present appeared to be proud parents or tutors, perhaps even industry scouts on the lookout for the next tranche of apprentices and employees. As I strode round past youngsters thinking "blimey, so that's what art students wear these days" the overwhelming impression I got is that creativity is safe and thriving in the next generation. If you get the chance, see if it cheers you up too.

Art Central: Newport Street Gallery

★★★☆☆ Dominion (until 1 September)
It's been a while since Damien Hirst's Vauxhall gallery has been open, almost like they skipped an exhibition, but finally it's back with an eclectic collection curated by, aha, Damien's son Connor. He's only included one of Dad's spot paintings whereas there are five Banksys, and also wallfuls of actually not bad modern art. A giant splotchy Myra Hindley greets you in the first gallery, plus a mundanely frosted door entitled Jess on the Toilet. Beyond are several tryptychs, the odd skull and even the EXIT sign is a neon work of art. Even though most of the works are 21st century the occasional Francis Bacon slips in perfectly, plus a Sutherland, a Warhol and the most underwhelming small black and white daub which it turned out was by Franz Kline. It's good to have the Hirst dynasty back.

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