The Art Diary March 2024 – Revd Jonathan Evens

Hurvin Anderson,March Art Diary 2024

The March Art Diary includes exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard, Gallery 1957, Dulwich Picture Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Compton Verney, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Benjamin Rhodes Arts and covers artists such as Isaam Kourbaj, Nidhi Khurana, Woody De Othello, Polly Braden, Matthew Askey, Steve Whittle, Patrice Moor and Josh Tiessen.

Kettle’s Yard is presenting the largest solo exhibition to date by Cambridge-based artist Issam Kourbaj. For 13 years, Kourbaj has been recording the conflict in his home country of Syria, where more than 14 million refugees have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. This exhibition will present key works from this period alongside a new series.

Exploring themes of destruction, forced displacement, shelter, time, memory and renewal, ‘Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive’ will offer an opportunity to engage with the artist’s multifaceted daily practice and will feature new and existing works from this period, including painting, drawing, film, performance and sculpture. The exhibition will comprise two main sections; the first will draw together performance, video and experimental sculptural works into an active space of production and process. A combined display structure and workspace, inspired by the artist’s studio, will present works that will continue to develop throughout the exhibition’s run, exploring the idea that, like the conflict in his homeland, his work is continuous.

Kourbaj will be present at intervals throughout the exhibition, which will evolve as he adds to the displays. Hundreds of date seeds will be stitched individually onto a canvas tent; papers will be stamped; sketches will be drawn; seeds will grow. Inspired by a seed’s ability to sprout roots in new environments, Kourbaj will grow Syrian wheat at Kettle’s Yard and Downing College, creating new work in collaboration with The Heong Gallery, Cambridge University Botanic Garden and the Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge University, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

A concurrent exhibition of work by Kourbaj is also taking place at the Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge. ‘You are not you and home is not home’ at The Heong Gallery will bring together works on displacement and migration made by the artist since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. For Kourbaj, home means many things. It is the womb, skin, or clothes as much as a tent, a house, or a nation. Like millions of migrants, Kourbaj is always away from home, even when he is at home. The exhibition explores the dual loss of exile, the loss of home, and the loss of self.

Taking inspiration from the Latin word for journey – iter – Iterarte is a new nomadic gallery driven by a desire to transform how people can discover art in all its infinite forms. This itinerant gallery will focus on facilitating connections between artists, artisans, and collectors through its physical and online cultural programme. Co-founded by Tamara Chalabi and Shilpa Sharma, Iterarte is the result of a shared creative vision to celebrate and showcase artistic talent from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Subcontinent through curated exhibitions, artist spotlights, and collaborative projects. As Chalabi explains:

“This region reflects an involuntary complicity of origins. Even if it is spread across three continents, there is an interconnectedness in a shared history and culture narrative that has shaped the artistic, spiritual, and intellectual landscapes of these lands over millennia. There is underexposed talent that is a reflection of many global factors. The current international art market is highly exclusive and doesn’t allow for the fair exposure of artists from this geography (among others). Iterarte aims to facilitate wider market access through creative content.”

Their inaugural exhibition is ‘Traces of Existence: Place Between Places’ by New Delhi-based artist Nidhi Khurana in Mayfair. The work of artist and educator Khurana takes the form of drawings, textiles, carpets, prints, artist books, and sculptures to reflect upon the role of the human within nature. In her recent works, she explores her relationship with the natural world by mapping her experiences as cyclical graphs of time, inspired by diversity in cognitive approaches such as the Australian aboriginal dreamtime, the Mappaemundi, the yatra (pilgrimage) maps, representations from Islamic cosmological diagrams and illuminated manuscripts. It is made of natural dyes, 24-carat gold and silver, handmade paper, and silk to document her experience of the world.

Similar themes are also being explored at Gallery 1957 where, in line with ecofeminist scholar Donna Haraway, ‘Constellations –Part 1: Figures on Earth & Beyond’ rejects the concept of the Anthropocene Epoch, based on the idea that human activity is the dominant influence on the Earth’s climate and environment in the current geological age. This exhibition’s concept challenges our human inclination to centre ourselves. Instead, it repositions humans as part of a larger ecosystem, critically examining human-made structures of power, memory, and agency within their wider environments through concepts of art history, spirituality, technology, and science fiction. The show includes specially commissioned works from artists Phoebe Boswell, Adelaide Damoah, Andrew Pierre Hart, and Denyse Gawu-Mensah, whilst artists Lois Selasie Arde-Acquah, Larry Amponsah, Modupeola Fadugba, Henry Hussey, and Ayomide Tejuoso (Plantation) have adapted new and previous works in line with the exhibition concept.

Curators Katherine Finerty, Tracy Naa Thompson, and Nuna Adisenu-Doe suggest, “The artworks on display propose a transient space, encouraging audiences to perceive their individual agency in collective ecosystems and restorative ecologies. Part 1 starts this conversation from roots in the earth and travels to stars from the cosmos – from origin stories to science fiction. In a time where radically reimagining human and non-human inhabitation is vital, we welcome all artists and audiences who participate in Constellations to pose future solutions for a regenerative world.”

Mónica de Miranda,ulwich Picture Gallery
Mónica de Miranda, Sun rise, 2023, inkjet print on cotton paper. Courtesy of the artist and Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid.

Similarly, ‘Soulscapes’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery is a major exhibition of landscape art that explores our connection with the world around us through the eyes of artists from the African Diaspora. The exhibition spans painting, photography, film, tapestry and collage through works from leading artists, including Hurvin Anderson, Phoebe Boswell, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Kimathi Donkor, Isaac Julien, Marcia Michael, Mónica de Miranda and Alberta Whittle, as well as some of the most important emerging voices working today.

‘Soulscapes’ considers the power of landscape art and reflects on themes of belonging, memory, joy and transformation. It opens by examining the theme of belonging in relation to the natural world and considering the varied ways we experience the land and how this relates to our sense of identity, connection and safety. Reflecting on landscapes and memory, the exhibition then considers how artists have used the natural world to express personal histories. ‘Soulscapes’ also celebrates the power of landscapes to evoke joy and pleasure, whether through the representation of personal experiences or through its expression in composition, colour and style. Finally, the exhibition explores the transformative power of nature to stimulate healing, renewal and wellbeing.

Such themes also feature in ‘Faith Like a Rock’, the first solo exhibition in the UK by Woody De Othello. This exhibition unfolds as a series of mise-en-scène, with each room transformed into a unique environment. In one, sculptures float on a trio of rafts made from shipping palettes. Kneeling figures inspired by the prostrate bodies seen across ancient religious statuary—from Djenné-Djeno’s famous seated figures to Egyptian depictions of pharaohs—are joined by a congregation of vessels aptly titled the healers gathered around. Several vessels are arranged atop this base of criss-crossed legs, featuring rich blue, green, and grey elongated faces. Instead of facing the viewer, the figures huddle inward. A pair of falcons perch on another buttress of limbs, a reference to the Yoruba belief in a divine force connecting earth to the spirit world and the ancient Egyptian god Horus, often depicted as a falcon-headed man.

In the next room, flaming red walls and deep crimson flooring set the stage for Divine Support and Direct Line. The sculptures stand tall with four arms branching outward to the heavens as if summoning a gathering or prayer. The tone shifts again to one of hushed reverence in the final room painted in teal. A procession of ceramic sculptures advances along a lengthy church bench. Along the walls, jewel-toned flowers and enchanted forests dance across canvas and paper, joined by a series of ink drawings depicting a tangle of trees, plants, bodies and birds.

Integral to Othello’s practice is a deep engagement with clay and its connection to place and ancestry. Rejecting Western cultural beliefs in the hegemony of humans over nature, the artist turns to pre-colonial rituals and precepts that reassert the rights of nature. Clay becomes a conduit to the past and a path to healing. From the nkisi of Central Africa—animistic power objects imbued with sacred energy and used for spiritual protection—to the Indigenous Dagara cosmology of sub-Saharan Africa, Othello embraces the regenerative power of the material.

‘The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure’ at the National Portrait Gallery is a major study of the Black figure – and its representation in contemporary art. The exhibition, curated by writer Ekow Eshun, showcases the work of contemporary artists from the African diaspora, including Michael Armitage, Lubaina Himid, Kerry James Marshall, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Amy Sherald, and highlights the use of figures to illuminate the richness and complexity of Black life. As well as surveying the presence of the Black figure in Western art history, the exhibition also examines its absence – the story of representation told through these works and the social, psychological and cultural contexts in which they were produced.

‘Polly Braden: Leaving Ukraine’ is an intimate portrait of women forced to leave their homes following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. In this new series of work, we see the extraordinary journeys undertaken by mothers, daughters, teenagers and babies in arms. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Braden has used her camera to document the lives of women and children unexpectedly scattered across Europe.

Through first-hand photographs, personal films and recorded conversations, ‘Leaving Ukraine’ takes the visitor on a geographical and emotional journey, including the highs and lows of job interviews, first days at school, trips to buy wedding dresses and poignant family reunions, as well as gruelling night shifts – a far cry from the jobs they had at home. The show explores four central stories focussing on three school friends trying to forge new lives and continue their education: a young graduate making a fresh start as a lawyer in London, a mother whose baby was born shortly after a perilous escape from Kherson to Warsaw; and two friends and their children who fled to Moldova with help from a kickboxing club, now struggling to find work in Italy.

In her exhibition ‘The Presence of Absence’ in the St John’s College Exhibition Galleries in Oxford, a collaboration with the Wollheim Centenary Project of the Interdisciplinary Psychoanalytic Thought Network, Patrice Moor addresses personal trauma. Moor creates collages with photographs, stitching and drawing to explore a psychological dimension in her work that expresses a suffered childhood trauma. Her mother died from a hereditary heart condition two weeks before Moor’s second birthday. The tragedy was met with silence and repression, intensified by a staunchly Catholic upbringing. She refers to her childhood as “a desolate landscape of prosperous neglect.”

The installation pivots on a powerful group of five large works, depicting the artist blowing out the candles on her cake on her second birthday. They are supplemented by a large collection of small collages that dissect details from the dominating images. The differing viewpoints challenge the notion of a single perspective and encourage the viewer to analyse their reactions, echoing the discrepancies that arise in a family narrative. The exhibition offers a highly unusual expression of a young child’s grief. It allows a window into the internal world of ‘the child in the adult’ and the everlasting engagement with loss.

At an earlier stage in her career, Moor created a ‘Stations of the Cross’ series. The skull has been central to much of her work and was also the focus of her ‘Stations’, which are intended to be a reminder of our own inevitable death and of how precious life is.

Steve Whittle’s retrospective at the Beecroft Gallery in Southend includes a series of Stations of the Cross and other crucifixion and resurrection images. Additionally, there are images of churches, including St Peter’s Chapel at Bradwell. M.L. Banting writes: “Asking what had drawn him to this ancient Chapel, Whittle says it’s almost impossible to put into words, he’d felt a primal and immediate connection on his first visit and had to return again and again. That powerful pull has resulted in a number of works, including charcoals, pastels, paintings and collages, all of which portray the extraordinary sense, or spirit, of place – remote, lonely, glorious and powerful – the austere silhouette of the Chapel monumental against the sea and sky.”

The primary subject matter in Whittle’s work is colour, which has been his major theme. The work is often produced in series and is unified by the similar images and combinations of colours used. Each picture can, therefore, be viewed as a component of a group or seen as an individual piece. The medium Whittle uses is collage, and over many years, he has developed the technique, which can be seen in many of the pictures in this retrospective. Firstly, the acid-free paper is prepared with several coats of acrylic paint in the appropriate colour, and the torn paper collage is applied to this surface with acrylic glue in as many layers as necessary to get the correct colour combinations. When the picture is complete, it is then coated with UVS varnish.

Matthew Askey,Art Diary March 2024
Station VIII, Matthew Askey, St Nicholas Hornsea. Courtesy of the artist.

Matthew Askey recently installed a new permanent commission of ‘Stations of the Cross’ at St Nicholas Church, Hornsea. This is a site-specific commission of paintings that link each Station to a part of the town. Each location in the town has a QR Code to link to information about each Station. His ‘Stations’ are egg-tempera on gesso panels and are traditionally made, just like Orthodox icons. The theological theme of these Stations (in addition to The Cross, of course) is ‘water and blood’. The sequence begins with Jesus depicted as a fountain – the water of life – with Pilate turning his back to wash his hands in the much smaller dish beside him.

Around 1515, at the height of the German Renaissance (circa 1470-1600), a mysterious altarpiece was created in the region of Franconia, now part of modern Bavaria. Somehow, it went to a church in the UK, where it remained whole until 1993 when it was broken up and sold. The wings of the altarpiece came to Compton Verney, and the central panel went to the National Gallery of Scotland. For the first time in more than 30 years, ‘The Lamentation of Christ with a Group of Donors’, along with striking depictions of St Christopher carrying the Infant Christ and Saint George and the Dragon, will be reunited at Compton Verney. As part of a joint project between the National Galleries of Scotland and Compton Verney, these three works by the artist known only as a ‘Franconian Master’ have inspired a new body of technical analysis and academic research, which will accompany the display.

‘The Lamentation of Christ with a Group of Donors’ has remarkably rich colours and shows Christ’s body being brought down from the cross before Mary Magdalene and other holy figures. Painted during the Northern Renaissance, the use of scale and perspective is both fascinating and perplexing. A closer inspection of the painting’s imagery demonstrates that the artist was aware of the work of famous contemporaries, such as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder. The wings of the altarpiece are double-sided – featuring the figures of Saints Christopher and Catherine on either side of one panel and Saints George and Barbara on opposite sides of the other – and would have opened and closed over the central panel of the Lamentation. They would have been ceremonially opened on holidays and festivals, acting as a very dramatic reveal in a world with limited imagery.

‘Creation Longs’ is an early career retrospective from international award-winning contemporary artist Josh Tiessen. Select works from his 15-year career are on exhibition at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. The theme for this show highlights Tiessen’s emphasis on beauty, particularity, and diversity in the natural world. Beyond mere aesthetic appreciation, the artist illuminates the ethical dimensions of creation’s groaning for redemption, longing to be liberated from its bondage to decay, as articulated by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8. Tiessen explores humanity’s relationship with nature, often juxtaposing animals with abandoned remnants of human civilisation.

Drawing from his own Jewish and Christian heritage, the Bible has been a guiding influence in Tiessen’s artistic practice, as it has been for many notable artists throughout history. He resonates with artist Marc Chagall’s remarks: “For me, painting the Bible is like a bouquet of flowers. The Bible, for me, is absolutely pure poetry, a human tragedy. The prophets inspire me. It is a committed poetry.” This influence is evident in Tiessen’s thematic body of work, ‘Streams in the Wasteland’, inspired by nature’s reclamation in the biblical book of Isaiah, and ‘Vanitas and Viriditas’, drawing on ecological wisdom from Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.

The unique format of non-rectangular oil paintings derives from the “shaped canvas” of abstract colour field painters, as well as medieval iconography. Tiessen also designs Renaissance-inspired tabernacle and altarpiece frames, which provide an interpretive framework for the spiritual themes conveyed in his work, as seen in the largest paintings on display: ‘Agnus Dei’ and ‘Rise Up’. Ultimately, the artist endeavours to draw together two strands—spirituality and art—to inspire greater appreciation for the natural world, motivate environmental stewardship, and offer hope in anxious times, with irony and a little humour thrown in for comic relief.

According to the twentieth-century critic Eric Newton, Gilbert and Stanley Spencer were more than brothers: they were ‘affinities’. Born one year and four days apart, they were brought up in Cookham almost as twins. They lived in an unconventional but cultivated household, the rhythm of each life mirroring the other. For both of them, music, religion, and nature were common languages. Their sense of awe at the natural world was, in many ways, a very Victorian discipline, for that was the era from which they emerged as adults, stumbling into the twentieth century – an era of war and huge social and economic change.

Stanley wrote to Gilbert, ‘ Cookham was for you as it was for me. We both had identical sympathies and a different sort of approach.’ For both, Cookham had all they needed, with commons, backwaters, Cliveden Woods and other ‘mysterious spaces.’ Whilst Stanley became more concerned with the metaphysical, religious otherworldliness of their home village, Gilbert – more ‘of the people’ than his brother – was more practically minded, although not immune to the mysteries of Cookham; one of his masterpieces, ‘A Cotswold Farm’, being one of the highlights of the exhibition.

The exhibition explores Gilbert Spencer’s identity as an artist, with major loans from private collections as well as Tate. It also features comparative works by Stanley from the Stanley Spencer Gallery’s collection, which demonstrate the brothers’ unified vision, as well as their rivalry.

Edward Durdey says that the works in ‘Ritual Landscapes’ at Benjamin Rhodes Arts “are my attempt to focus on an interior world away from the proliferating uncertainties and instabilities of the present”. The walk to his studio, which is “a stone’s throw from a 13th Century Village Church constructed in green sandstone”, takes in footpaths, fields, a “palette-shaped pond circled by trees”, and “a wood over a chalk stream alongside a 16th century Holm Oak”. All, “tempered by the continuous sound of the M1 Motorway and the distant sight of a huge Amazon warehouse complex”. He is also “inspired by regular visits to Neolithic and Bronze age ritual sites such as Avebury, Arbor Low, Mên-an-Tol and the Rollright Stones”. He writes, “Painting and carving is for me a ritual activity towards a timeless, silently contemplative world of enacted ceremonies imbued with human presence”.

His “curved, widescreen paintings sometimes containing carved elements, use burnt orange grounds and initial broad brush strokes discover the paintings direction”. He writes that: “Trees symbolise growth, death, rebirth and an axis of the world linked with earth, air and water. The cypress trees indicate a transition towards new possibilities and are also formal devices. The pathways point the viewer into the space and the quest for discovery. The carvings in builders’ finishing plaster evolve through the making process; they feature architectural elements as well as vessels with fruits – these are informed by early Greek bas-reliefs and highlighted in gold leaf.”

Metaphysical thought has been excluded from much of the discourse on modern art, especially abstract painting. Still, Joseph Masheck’s‘ Faith in Art: Religion, Aesthetics, and Early Abstraction’ reveals how an underlying religiosity informed some of our most important abstract painters. A radical new theorisation of the influence of religion over visual art, ‘Faith in Art’, asks why metaphysics has been eliminated from the discussion where it might have something to say.

The book provides a new way of thinking about a hundred years of abstract painting. Covering Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky, Masheck shows how ‘revealed religion’ has been an underlying but fundamental determinant of the thinking and practice of abstract painting from its very originators. He contextualises their art within some of the historical moments of the early 20th century, including the Russian revolution and the Stalinist period. He explores the appeal of certain themes, such as the Passion of Christ.

‘Sacred Modernity: The Holy Embrace of Modernist Architecture’, the result of a six-year study by photographer Jamie McGregor Smith, documents a dramatic shift in ecclesiastical architecture across post-war Europe. Spurred on by the modernising impulses of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and in search for an appropriate architectural language that showed that the Catholic Church was still relevant to the modern world, this was the period when the church married the atheist architect and bore a child of pure form.

Among these structures, some exude a joyful antagonism, while others emanate a cold minimalism. Boldly designed, outrageous and provocative for their time, the aesthetic of this period still ignites great debate between modernists and traditionalists. Half a century on, this study traces how their materials and ideals have matured and patinated. Remaining amongst the most unique buildings within our public sphere, they are future visions from the near past that seem to anticipate society’s current shift away from organised religion towards individual spirituality. The book represents the first attempt by a photographer to collate the religious architecture of the mid-century high modern years that took many forms, from Brutalism to Structural Expressionism, under a singular artistic vision.

Artists inspired by the work explored by Masheck and McGregor Smith may also be interested in The Laudamus Award 2024, a new award presented by Christian Art that aims to be a beacon of encouragement for sacred art in our contemporary world. The inaugural Laudamus Award, with a prize of £25,000, provides an opportunity for today’s creative minds to express faith, devotion, and spirituality through the medium of art. A panel of experts will select the top ten most inspiring artworks from the submissions. These will then be subject to a public vote by Christian Art readers.

This award is intended to be a testament to the profound impact of sacred art as a means of praising God in the modern world. In a landscape where contemporary expression meets timeless spirituality, the Laudamus Award seeks to honour artists who skilfully capture the essence of Christian themes, transcending traditional boundaries and embracing diverse styles. Artists are encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of the Christian faith, drawing inspiration from sacred texts, historical events, saints, and the profound teachings of Christianity. Artworks can embrace a variety of styles and mediums – from traditional paintings and sculptures to digital art and mixed media. The award celebrates artistic proficiency and acknowledges the profound connection between art and worship. Through a careful selection process, the Laudamus Award aims to recognise the ability of artists to inspire, uplift, and invite contemplation on the divine.

‘Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive’, 2 March – 26 May 2024, Kettles Yard and ‘You are not you and home is not home’, The Heong Gallery

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‘Traces of Existence; Place Between Places’ by Nidhi Khurana, 14 -26 March, 34 Bourdon Street, London W1K 3PR 

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‘Constellations Part 1: Figures On Earth & Beyond’, 14 March – 25 May 2024, Gallery 1957, London

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Woody De Othello: Faith Like a Rock, 8 March – 13 April 2024, Stephen Friedman Gallery

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‘The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure’, 22 February – 19 May 2024, National Portrait Gallery

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‘Polly Braden: Leaving Ukraine’, 15 March – 1 September 2024, Foundling Museum

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Patrice Moor, The Presence of Absence’, 16 February – 8 March 2024, St John’s College Exhibition Galleries

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Steve Whittle ‘Retrospective : 1973-2023’, 13 January – 31 March 2024, Beecroft Art Gallery

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‘Stations of the Cross’ by Matthew Askey, ongoing, St Nicholas Church, Hornsea

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‘Reunited: The Lamentation Altarpiece’, 19 March – January 2025, Compton Verney

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‘Creation Longs’, 16 February to 10 April, 2024, The Great Hall, Wycliffe College, Toronto

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‘The Cookham Brotherhood: The Art of Gilbert and Stanley Spencer’, 28 March – 3 November 2024, Stanley Spencer Gallery

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‘Ritual Landscapes – Edward Durdey’, 7 March – 3 May 2024, Benjamin Rhodes Arts

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‘Faith in Art: Religion, Aesthetics, and Early Abstraction’, Joseph Masheck, Bloomsbury

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‘Sacred Modernity: The Holy Embrace of Modernist Architecture’, Jamie McGregor Smith, Hatje Cantz

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The Laudamus Award 2024 –

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