On Monday, January 13 the Times (London) published a chirpy article by Ben Luke promising wonders to come in London’s official galleries during the coming year. I have to say that the prospects he offered didn’t look so wonderful to me – that is to say where contemporary art is concerned. Women artists still enjoy a big place, but the evidence is that interest in them is ever so slightly beginning to fade. On April 6, the National Gallery opens its much-anticipated Artemisia Gentileschi show, with 35 paintings by this rare early Baroque artist. Artemisia is a good solid Old Master (ahem!) painter. Still, the show is unlikely to prove that she wasn’t anything like the equal of Caravaggio, in terms of either innovation or of subsequent influence.
The point here is that contemporary art, as it grows more and more polemical, has in any case been forced to move away from pure abstraction. – ELS
On May 19 Tate Britain opens a big show of work by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and artist who ticks some currently desirable boxes: female, ethnic minority. This is a show one can genuinely look forward to. Yiadom-Boakye is a British artist who has already had a substantial degree of international success. Her work already features in the collections of that Tate and the V&A. In America, she is in the Museum of Modern Art, the Miami Art Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
As Wikipedia tells one: “Yiadom-Boakye’s work consists mostly of painted portraits of fictional black subjects. Her paintings are predominantly figurative with raw and muted colours. The characteristic dark palette of her work is known for creating a feeling of stillness that contributes to the timeless nature of her subjects. Her portraits of fictional individuals feature people reading, lounging and resting in traditional poses. She brings to the depiction of her subjects contemplative facial expressions and relaxed gestures, making their posture and mood relatable to many viewers.” Nothing experimental here, but a lot of solid achievement.
On April 29, Tate Modern offers a show by the non-binary South African photographer Zanele Muholi. This offers “images of LGBT people in their homeland”, plus “a recent series of self-portraits with assorted props and the photographic contrast amplified to emphasise Muholi’s blackness…a powerful exploration of racism, labour and sexual politics.” Images on the web show that Muholi is indeed a maker of powerful images. A small mutinous voice within me murmurs: “Just how much more politically correct can you get?”
The third solo by a woman artist listed is a big show for Marina Abramovic, at the Royal Academy, opening om September 26. It is, in fact, weird that the RA should showcase this ambitious prophetess, and what she has to offer – a religious or pseudo-religious experience (take your pick) – seems to be absolutely the contrary of everything that an academy devoted to teaching the skills needed to create viable works of visual art actually stands for.
The rest of the 2020 exhibition programming at various official or semi-official galleries in London seems more conventional, though with frequent squeaks of protest. The National Gallery, post-Artemisia, is a rare exception. It offers a Titian blockbuster opening on May 16 and a Raphael show in October. The Titian show reunites the six large mythological paintings made by Titian during the 1550s and 1560s for Philip II of Spain.
Tate Modern features Steve McQueen, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol – all men – in upcoming exhibitions. Very familiar names. Nothing with quite the possible shock value of Zanele Muholi. Tate Britain, in March, offers a retrospective devoted to Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley’s work is small in scale. It also, after all these years, has residual notoriety. It seems likely to attract the kind of jostling throng that currently attends the same gallery’s William Blake show.
One squeak comes from the Whitechapel Art Gallery with a show called Radical Figuration: Painting in the New Millennium, which opens on February 6. This tips its hat to the current climate in art by pointing out that, while the RA’s New Spirit in Painting show of 1981 offered only work by men, in this upcoming exhibition seven of the ten artists who work will be on view are female. Tala Madani, previously shown at the Saatchi Gallery, is Iranian. Tschabalala Self (born 1990) is a black American artist who has been previously shown in London by Pilar Corrias. Wikipedia tells one that she is “best known for her depictions of Black female figures using paint, fabric and discarded pieces of her previous works.”
The point here is that contemporary art, as it grows more and more polemical, has in any case been forced to move away from pure abstraction. If you are anxious to promote specific social and political causes, you can’t depend on squares, circles and lines, or indeed on splendid splashes of paint to do the job.
Likely to be more specific, in its rebellion against the current ethos, is a show called Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography, opening at the Barbican Art Gallery on February 20. This is going to be a massive event, with 300 images by 50 artists. Not all the photographers are male – there will be work by Laurie Anderson and Annette Messager – but the show announces itself as a “study of the male body and psyche”. It will range from portraits of the Taliban to work exploring queer male identities – Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz. Lots of protesting voices there.
Finally, an upcoming contemporary show that seems to have none of these fashionable preoccupations with sex and gender – an exhibition opening at the Hayward Gallery on March 4 which is called Among the Trees. It will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and will feature work by almost 40 internationally known artists – some of them painters, such as Peter Doig, others multimedia practitioners, such as William Kentridge. Our current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has just listed Extinction Rebellion – the movement calling attention to climate change – as a “terror threat” and has had it included in a guide entitled “Safeguarding young people and adults from ideological extremism” side by side with recognised security threats such as neo-Nazis and Islamist terrorist groups. Who knows – maybe members of the official thought police may in due course turn up on the South Bank to slam the gallery doors in the face of visitors? It is, in fact, very hard right now to think of any upcoming fully contemporary show in a significant space that doesn’t attempt to promote some kind of social and/or political agenda. Some official galleries just happen to do this more subtly than others. Confine your visits to purely commercial spaces if you are getting tired of being preached at. You may not escape even there.
Top Photo: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Venice Bienniale 2019 by PC Robinson © Artlyst 2019