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Study visit review: London trio of galleries - The Open College of the Arts

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Study visit review: London trio of galleries

A small group of students met in London on a cold and snowy day to visit three galleries, situated in the Islington area of London.
The first stop was Parasol Unit, a foundation for contemporary art that is run as a not for profit organisation and educational charity. It was set up in 2004 and operates purely for public benefit. Each year, four major exhibitions are staged, alongside other artistic projects as well as opportunities for new UK art school graduates. The foundation is funded through a mix of public funding and private support.
After a short introduction by curator Helen Lewandowski, the OCA group viewed the work of American artist Martin Puryear in his first solo show in London. This was something of a retrospective, with work spanning 40 years of the artist’s career. The immediate impression was of a space filled with large objects, some of which suggested a function or common use. A wooden cage set atop an old pair of wagon wheels containing a perfect sphere like a giant eyeball was positioned next to large, red, curved form. All the pieces evidenced Puryear’s background as a guitar maker and showcased his skills of traditional craftsmanship played out in meticulously made pieces of contemporary art.

Above: Martin Puryear, ‘Big Phrygian’ (detail), 2010–2014. Painted red cedar, 147.3 x 101.6 x 193 cm, Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD, USA.

The exhibition included Puryear’s wall based works, wooden forms mounted to become expressive drawings, their finish often belaying their material. His prints, woodcuts and etchings, which are a direct extension of (or development for) the sculptures, presented us with soft forms that were simply but eloquently drawn.
Above: Students viewing the work of Martin Puryear

A short walk away, the group visited Cubitt Gallery, part of a 25 year old artist-led organisation that combines artist’s studios, the gallery and an educational/community programme of events. The community of over 30 studio artists undertake the management of the organisation, undertaking tasks from cleaning the building to selecting the curatorial fellow. Cubitt is known as a place that nurtures artists at a pivotal early stage of their careers, and provides opportunities for curators and educators to expand their practice whilst presenting a programme of cutting edge work. The appointment of a curator to the 18 month Cubitt Curatorial Fellowship is a crucial part of the organisation and they is invited to curate a programme of exhibitions for the gallery space based on their application proposal.
The OCA group were given a personal insight into this role and the exhibition by the current Cubitt Curatorial Fellow Helen Nisbet. In complete contrast to Parasol Unit which extends over three floors and is a showcase for gallery architecture, Cubitt Gallery is a small single room space in building that is not purpose built. That notwithstanding, the work on display – paintings by artist Flo Brooks – engaged everyone’s attention. These works were slices of life, the everyday, workaday evidence of living, in pieces that exploded out from the confines of the painting. Brooks is a trans person, and his works offered the viewer a glimpse into biographical scenarios of intimate everyday scenes between him and his family. Reflecting the specific circumstances of his life, the works question, provoke and interweave ideas around remoteness, care-giving, the absence and presence of (queer) community, and the hormonally and chemically altered body. The works prompted much discussion, we had been invited to be voyeurs to someone’s life in all its glorious detail. That privilege caused us to think about how much – or how little – we reveal in our work, and what effect that honesty has on the viewer.
Above; Flo Brooks, Normal with wings, acrylic on wood, 2016.

The third and final visit of the day was to see the work of Idris Khan at Victoria Miro Gallery. By contrast, this gallery is a commercial space that operates within the world of art fairs, auction houses and the private benefactor. With spaces in Venice and Mayfair London, the gallery represents artists such as Peter Doig, Grayson Perry, Yayoi Kusama and Chantal Joffe. The exhibition of Khan’s work assaulted the senses. A subtle but inescapable smell of oil and printing ink pervaded the space, which was dominated by several large scale wall pieces that were created by repeated over printing of text. Layered work is one of Khan’s signature processes and inn these large pieces the over laid letters created an almost reflective surface. These were complimented by a collection of smaller, floor based, three dimensional blocks made of bronze. The surfaces of the blocks appeared to have been cast from raised text ‘in reverse’ so the effect gave a sense of the spaces between words, the gaps and pauses between letters. From certain viewpoints, one was made aware of the relationship between Khan’s large three dimensional piece, the architecture of the gallery and of the surrounding flats seen through the gallery window, drawing attention to the subtle and sensitive curation and placement of the work. The groups was intrigued by a series of small pieces by Kahn, with blocked out areas worked on top of a musical score creating their own rhythms and notation.
Above: Idris Khan at Victoria Miro, London

The visit to Victoria Miro was completed by a more speedy tour around the lower gallery which was showing the work of Tal R. A series of large paintings depicting the exteriors of sex clubs, massage parlours, strip clubs, adult theatres and other red-light establishments from around the world assaulted our senses. Initially the group were less engaged by these works, their bold blocks of colour quite difficult to assimilate after the subtleties of Khan’s monochrome pieces. However, on inspection, the elements of pattern, gloss and glitter, raw application of paint and scale began to hold the attention. Sometimes one has to stay with a work to enable a connection to be made with it.
This study visit brought together three very different gallery spaces, each with their own structure and agenda and a variety of work from emerging and established artists. There is value in exploring the many ways that artwork is seen, we can become more aware of the journeys that artists take and the way a practice can develop through public presentation of work.
Useful information
Parasol Unit is located at 14 Wharf Rd, London N1 7RW
Victoria Miro Gallery is located at 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW
Cubitt Gallery is located at 8 Angel Mews, London N1 9HH.
Flo Brooks
Idris Khan
Tal R
Martin Puryear

Posted by author: Caroline Wright

3 thoughts on “Study visit review: London trio of galleries

  • Great to meet everyone. This was an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the very different gallery spaces and look at some diverse work. Thanks to Caroline for leading this interesting study visit.

    • Thanks for joining the group Arlene.
      On my return journey home, it struck me strongly how we are so conditioned to think of the large national gallery and museum spaces in the city that the smaller more intimate and raw spaces tend not to be on our radar or list of places to visit. The value of viewing the work of a seminal artist from the past or present is clearly enriching and valuable (take the current show of Rachel Whiteread’s work at Tate Britain for example) but the hype of the blockbuster can skew our priorities. There is an enormous amount of value in looking at the exhibition spaces where artists first cut their teeth after graduation.
      The second experience that stayed with me after the study visit in London, was the shift in understanding that was made when looking at the work of Tal R. How easy it is to dismiss, and how much can be gained by persistence and staying with a piece of work. This could be partly down to today’s fast world, where taking time seems to be driven by different agendas, or maybe it is back to priorities again. Whicheverwhatever it is, as artists looking is both crucial and fundamental.

  • Thank you Caroline for sharing this with us that couldn’t be there for the visit! Very interesting to read about the differences between the galleries – much appreciated and interesting. I must admit I never think of the smaller galleries and artspaces when I plan visits – it is always about visiting the larger national galleries and museums, just like you write Caroline, and I definitely need to rethink this and open my eyes – or widen them at least…
    Thank you for this!

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