As London opened its doors to the international art world for Frieze Week, a host of exhibitions and collateral events across the capital were set to showcase this city’s capacity for inclusion and dialogue – yet once again, real-world events took over the conversation, leaving many of us asking: what difference does any of this make? Now in its 20th edition, the maturity of London’s preeminent art fair is evidenced in both the wealth of curation and dominance of once-rebel YBAs – Sarah Lucas, Tracy Emin, and Damien Hirst – who now form part of the establishment (See Artlyst’s Review of Happy Gas). With one of the worst conflicts in recent history unfolding in Gaza, again, our viewing was tempered by an acute awareness of privilege and the importance of spaces where we can explore differences of opinion creatively.
The week began with discovery; I noticed a street sign, ‘Living Memory, an exhibition in All Saints Chapel,’ and turned right. Tucked away in a quiet corner, this 19th-century chapel is host to an intimate exhibition featuring sculptures by the French American icon Louise Bourgeois, paintings by Israeli artist Gideon Rubin (b. 1973), and a site-specific soundscape by French musician Nicolas Godin (founding member of air). An ideal setting to contemplate themes of memory, loss, and transformation found in the artworks, Godin’s notes – composed in response to Rubin and Bourgeois’ work – act as a conduit between their physical presence and spiritual essence. Elegantly attuned to the history and architecture of the chapel, this is a space made for sound to expand, built to house transcendent music. As if it was always there, it keys your senses and soothes the mind – what I wouldn’t do to commission Godin for a track to take me floating around Frieze! On the altar was a work I had never seen before, by Lousie Bourgeois (Brother & Sister, 1949, bronze and stainless steel). It seemed to hover: two blackened wings or a giant, petrified and broken heart. The choir of faceless angels in Rubin’s paintings surrounding this altar now seems like a haunting premonition of many lost in sudden, brutal conflict. Curated by Beth Greenacre, this show highlights the importance of relationships – between the built environment and art, between light and sound waves, and between dogma and prayer. Hosted by Unity Real Estate and supported by Galerie Karsten Greve, Paris, I carried my “Living Memory” through Frieze Week.
Following three peripatetic years after its closure in Tehran, Ab-Anbar opened a luminous multi-level new gallery in the heart of Fitzrovia. With a rich program of shows and talks scheduled over the next 24 months, a solo exhibition, LANDMARKS, by London-based Iraqi-born artist Jananne Al-Ani, is currently on view. Drawing on two decades of photographic, moving image and audio works, this show marks the 20th Anniversary of the Iraq War. This event casts a long shadow over Al-Ani’s practice. It was the catalyst for a longstanding interest in the power of the gaze in response to lens-based technologies (in particular drones) and her prioritising the importance of eye-witness testimony, so often mediated by technology. We met gallery co-director Azadeh Zaferani in front of UNTITLED (SCORCHED EARTH) – Ed 1 of 7 archival pigment prints. A composite image, with jagged edges forming steps where individual images have been knit together, the resolution of this aerial image is so sharp the ground looks like reptile skin. Parched and barren, this landscape lacks any human constructs or vegetation… yet our eye scans for signs of life. “These images are taken from a drone,” says Zaferani, “this vertical perspective flattens and abstracts whilst also revealing the ruins of a faded empire hidden in plain sight.” In its simplicity, this work invites us to look and look again, and my sense of the work is elegiac for those who have vanished in highly contested landscapes, enhanced by its corporeal length, in the shape of a coffin.
Sounds of War (2023, Single Channel Digital Video) in the adjacent room fills the space. I follow the stairs and see Frances Morris leaning against a fresh white wall, listening to S/HE SAID (2023, Audio Installation, 2 minutes). “You should write about this show; it feels important,” she says, smiling. “Yes!” I am enthused and mindful of how apposite this encounter is to my article. It’s one of the busiest weeks in London’s art calendar, where all the good and the great descend on the city, and here is the ex-director of Tate Modern, quietly absorbing new work at a gallery opening in Fitzrovia. She shares my delight and replies, “Yes, I am now free to do what I want.” I am encouraged to see this still includes looking at art.
Unnatural WomenGeraldine Swayne
One of this week’s highlights was a preview of Unnatural Women with artist/curator Rowena Easton, a group show including Paula Rego, Marcelle Hanselaar, Angelina May Davis, Alice Kettle, Abigail Norris, Elissa Jane Diver, Geraldine Swayne and Olivia Bullock. The show was part of the new Women in Art Fair initiative founded by Jacqueline Harvey to support women artists, curators, and gallerists. The exhibition starts with a visceral pairing that acts as a kind of portal: suspended above a large painting by Angelina May Davis (Decline and Fall, 2023) is a bulbous, multi-limbed creature that might have spawned from a floating ribbon in the tableau below. Next to this is a curatorial statement; Easton asks, “Was Eve the first ‘unnatural woman’? We are told that her hunger for knowledge corrupted the entire natural world… Let us say that she was. And let’s say that the women in this show are all Eve’s daughters, each unafraid to be curious and unmanageable…” Indeed. Beyond the visual relationship, they introduce the idea of an endless conversation between artists, concepts and women’s bodies. Running alongside the IRL show is an exhibition of crypto art at Blackbird on SuperRare Spaces, where you can see pieces by Geraldine Swayne, Kate Street and Hannah Murgatroyd. Everything is connected in this intelligently executed show; even the walls are individually painted to amplify the tone. Moreover, Easton leaves ample room for interpretation and creates moments for reflection. Towards the end, we find works from the series Rebel Woman from the Apocrypha by Marcelle Hanselaar, sited next to Paula Rego’s abortion series – confronting the biological truth and psychological trauma of choice. Later that day at Frieze, I would see an early, uplifting work by Rego from the 1980s at Victoria Miro and be surprised – its bright tones and humorous details were so different to her later, darker works. “I am sorry,” I heard myself saying – to every woman.
Showing at David Zwirner on 24 Grafton Street is a suite of intimate paintings by Lui Ye, admired for his technical sophistication and precise brushwork – redolent of European old masters like Jan van Eyck. Homage to the cross-cultural references that have shaped the artist’s imagination, the show’s title playfully references John Adams’s 1999 symphony (Naïve and Sentimental Music), which, in turn, speaks to Frederich Schiller’s essay on the same with poetry. These small, perfectly executed paintings examine the art historical legacy of portraiture whilst continuing to develop the formal possibilities and nuances of the painted surface. Seamlessly blending old with new, his works have a timeless elegance that transcends present commercial trends while maintaining a peculiar hold on the contemporary. We glimpse icons in starkly lit chiaroscuro works: the droopy-eyed labyrinthine stare of Jorge Luis Borges, 2023, the fading beauty of an orchid Flower No 4. (Homage to Karl Blossfeldt), the unbelievable cuteness of Miffy, 2021 and Phoebe, 2021 and 2023, the artist’s Shiba Inu teddy bear dog, the chromatic abundance of Phoebe’s Balls, 2023, and the smouldering sensuality of Su Li-zhen, 2021, disappearing around a corner into obscurity (from Wong Kar-wai’s atmospheric film In the Mood for Love). Taking months, sometimes years, Liu has an uncanny ability to set the sharply observed against the void. “To make a painting takes a long time: the more it takes, the more things become visible. To reduce unnecessary elements is an even longer process. As time passes, the edge becomes clearer – the edge of everything. This is a theme in itself. The edge is always dangerous…” So true for an artist determined to paint in the classical tradition poised between East and West, who hovers on the edge of then and now. He stands not precariously but precisely – like a master. I was reminded of my conversation that morning with artist Wen Wu, winner of the National Gallery’s Portrait Prize, 2013, at Virginia Visual Arts, who has developed her portraiture practice to reflect a deepening awareness of the self in society and how this is shaped – and sometimes broken – by culture.
There is much to see on Cork Street behind the Royal Academy. We were fortunate to meet Shirin Neshat after seeing The Fury at the Goodman Gallery before her interview with Paul Carey-Kent. Quietly diminutive, but for piercing black eyes outlined in heavy charcoal, she seemed overwhelmed by current events. It is exactly one year on from the events in Iran that precipitated #womenlifefreedom and the fight against gender apartheid. Just as fellow Iranian Soheila Sokhanvari’s Rebel Rebel opened at the Barbican last year (her next solo, We Could Be Heroes, is now on at The Heong Gallery, Cambridge), this exhibition feels almost preordained. Like the artist Azadeh Ghotbi, who created Weaves of Resistance, a delicately collaged icon woven from the shredded image of Mahsa Amini, these artists are trying to honour the many – too often faceless – women who did not survive their bid for freedom. For all three living in exile, a sense of responsibility comes with freedom, which also lends an extraordinary, heartbreaking depth to their work. In creating works that speak simultaneously to a Middle Eastern and Western sensibility, characterised by powerful, often iconic images of women who would otherwise remain unseen, they are building a kind of library for the future – if we cannot remember them, how can we imagine a better future?
Nothing speaks more to the power of art to initiate conversation than the playful, punchy work of Yinka Shonibare CBE, showing across Frieze and the newly opened Stephen Friedman Gallery. Founder of the Yinka Shonibare Foundation, G.A.S Foundation and Guest Projects, his exhibition ‘Free The Wind, The Spirit, and The Sun’ celebrates nature and culture in his entangled life. Taking his inspiration from the Dada spirit – so apt in an era defined by war – a movement that challenged bourgeois values and the traditions of Western art, this show includes ‘African Roots of Modernism’, from a series of hand-painted sculptures of African ritual artefacts; dancing figures adorned in his renowned African-inspired batik patterns; giant, brightly coloured tapestries that celebrate indigenous birds; and sculptures that defy all conventions. The largest of these – showing at Frieze Sculpture – is Material SG (IV). “The idea was to produce something hard that looks soft and weightless,” explains Shonibare, “the form emerged after photographs were taken of fabric billowing in the wind, a concept that emerged from thinking about the sails of slave ships.” Brilliant and totemic, the work serves as a metaphor for the movement of people and global interconnectivity.
To amplify this last point, he has bookended his show with a curated selection of works from some of the hottest names in art from the African continent and diaspora working today. A critical work in this show is a painting by Nengi Omuku (b. 1987), who is also showing inside Frieze with Pippy Houldsworth, and at Art on Sea, Hastings, in collaboration with the Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, “The Dance of People and the Natural World” which runs until March. Like Michael Armitage, Omuku, who studied fine art in the United Kingdom before returning to Nigeria, integrates cultural heritage through her choice of materials. Figures immersed in lush, euphoric landscapes are painted onto strips of restored traditional Yoruba textiles. “There is an incredible woven textile called Ashoke, and I started to wonder about its origins,” says Omuku. “Then a friend showed me a collection of vintage Sanya, a precolonial textile originally worn by women for ceremonial dress. When I find a complete set, I rescue them, restore them, and remove the stains. I reverse the stitches to preserve the original, then paint on the back.” Her paintings are then hung over a wooden pole that sits away from the wall and moves with the air so that people can see behind them. Giving the substrate and equivalent value to the painted image, her works embody how each generation stands on the shoulders of the last. Though often invisible, we must try to honour their memory. “Uplifting and engaging, in these works, we see the potential for complete harmony – and we need that vision right now,” says Liz Gilmore, director of Hastings Contemporary.
Suhasini Kejriwal, Maquette for Garden of Un-earthly Delights, 2023. Acrylic paint, fiberglass, metal Frieze Sculpture Park
Speaking of harmony, Indian artist Suhasini Kejriwal presented The Garden of Un-Earthly Delights, a series of totemic sculptures that form part of an imaginary landscape drawn from detailed observations in her garden in Kolkata, as part of Frieze Sculpture 2023. Presented by Nature Morte in collaboration with RMZ Foundation and the JSW Foundation, we met with Kejriwal at The Arts Club, Dover Street, in conversation with long-time friend Frieze Sculpture director Fatos Ustek. What stands out about her work is that it is against the monumental. It is not miniature but created on a human scale, one that is relatable but also respectful of an already busy world. Whilst it might be overlooked at first, it is also just the kind of work that stays with you. Also shown inside Frieze, alongside a sensational textile by Sagarika Sundaram, there is a sense that this artist is trying to show us something central to how she relates to the world. “Nature and its interplay with culture attracts me to Suhasini’s works,” says Sangita Jindal of the JSW Foundation. “Works to do with the natural world perform two important tasks – they soothe the viewer, but they also raise relevant questions about the epochal changes that are taking place around us… The Garden of Un-Earthly delights is thus, for me, a garden of Uncertain Futures – an intimation of the shape of things to come.”
The most photographed booth was Dreamland, by Sophie von Hellermann at Pilar Corrias. Margate’s iconic funfair inspired this new body of work, featuring carousels, Ferris wheels and soothsayers. Highlighted by National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan (himself a recipient of the Critics Circle Award, 2023), it was just the kind of joyous mise-en-scene we all needed, a prescient reminder of why art matters. “A day spent at a seaside fun fair, in all its intensity, can feel like a whole life of dreams and desires compressed into a few hours of an afternoon. I painted fast, enjoying the licence of seeming temporality that the funfair offers…” an experience we can all relate to when trying to summarise all we have seen in one week. For this, the solo booths stood out again this year. Timothy Taylor nearly stole the show with his immersive total studio booth dedicated to Eddie Martinez, showcasing his 18-year drawing practice, running alongside his solo exhibition “Enough” at the London gallery. “Drawing is not an act of effort for Martinez”, says Taylor. “it’s about thinking, thinking with a utensil.”
Following this theme, we then met the phenomenally articulate gallerist Nicola Vassell, showing works by scientist-turned-artist Deborah Azinger, proposed by Simone Leigh as part of the Frieze London Artists-to-Artists section (next to Vanessa Raw, selected by Tracy Emin CBE RA, at the Carl Freedman Gallery). Showing on a brilliant yellow ground were works of Azinger’s monochromatic series Untitled Transmutations that, at first glance, had the character of early, experimental photograms. “They are comprised of works on paper rendered with ground cookshop charcoal – an essential but undervalued fuel indigenous to the artist’s native Jamaica.” Like Omuku, she reconfigures materials from her heritage and integrates them into her practice while transforming their perceived value through the art market. In this series, we see the enquiring mind of a scientist giving free rein to her artistic sensibility: notice the correlation of shapes and the accidental appearance of a face made out of simple geometries. The works look like they are made with cutouts and repeating forms – we read an image captured, not made – but they are, in fact, drawings – soft and powdery with charcoal moved by fingertips. From this waste material, Azinger conjures something new and potentially valuable (certainly for the high level of presentation with this gallery at Frieze London): carbon gives voice to forms that emerge in a fog. Haunting but not apocalyptic. These works were made through the joy of discovery, radiating with the hope that we will all find our way creatively.