Contemporary Art History: Mayfair Gallery Round-Ups By Alice Pelot

Mayfair Gallery Round-Up

A large number of the exhibitions in Mayfair for the fall season reach back to the fifties, revisiting conceptual art, geometric abstraction, and photography’s history. Emerging artists are exploring art historical themes of painterly voyeurism and commercial galleries are presenting participatory art works. One afternoon in the small spaces of Sprüth Magers, Stephen Friedman, Gagosian Gallery, Thomas Dane Gallery and David Zwirner, seen in this suggested order ties contemporary works neatly into the theories of art history. Beginning with conceptual art’s question posed by Keith Arnatt, ‘Do we even need the actions of the artist to declare something an artwork?’ the query seems to carry through the program of participatory artworks by Jennifer Rubell in which it is the actions of the participants that define the artistic meaning. Then, old themes are revisited and incorporated into contemporary and even digital practices. In the new works of Thomas Ruff, historical photographic processes are revived, and Ella Kruglyanskaya reminds us of a time when the gaze of the painter was returned by the challenging subject. Finally, a full history of Cuban politics in the late 1950’s is thoroughly researched and represented in geometric abstraction.

Stephen Friedman
Jennifer Rubell
Not Alone
4 September – 2 October

Engaging adventurous audiences with vulnerability-inducing participatory works, Stephen Friedman Gallery presents five art works by Jennifer Rubell for her exhibition Not Alone. Following the success of her solo exhibition Engagement in 2011 at Stephen Friedman, her Portrait of the Artist at Freize 2013, and her food performance practice, Rubell’s new works politely and even casually ask us to empathize with her motherhood and as an artist/muse. For visitors who are uncomfortable with or skeptical of participatory art works, begin by visiting the film Posing (2015) in Gallery Two. Installed in a private anteroom, isolated viewers are invited to undress and stand as if posing for a painting as Rubell does a top a horse in the film. Posing nude three times a week for Brandi Twilley (the other half of her collaborative fictional character Brad Jones) to produce the equestrian portraits hanging in the adjacent room, Rubell allows us to share in her intimate and vulnerable position. Having taken a more physically vulnerable role in viewership, the three works in Gallery One then procure the opportunity for compassion and playfulness in participation that might otherwise seem simple. For instance, on entry, visitors are handed Us (2015), a hand-blown glass sculpture of a newborn baby, the fragile care of which the artist has entrusted to us. The connection between the value given artworks and precious babies is clear, but the delicate object also prompts a sense of compassion that might be attributed to the trust and responsibility imparted on the participant or the implied communion of our caring.

Thomas Dane Gallery
Ella Kruglyanskaya
Fancy Problems
4 September – 3 October

The graphic, audacious, fancy women in Ella Kruglyanskaya’s paintings peer in from the walls of Thomas Dane Gallery. Classy and secretive, these painted women are often holding, moving or hanging works of art like Audrey Hepburn in How to Steel a Million. When these women are not handling art works, they are dancing, painting, reluctantly lounging or staring at the gallery visitors with distain. The confrontational voyeurism with which the visitor is greeted reverses the tradition of the voyeuristic painter and also with the ‘whose who’ experience of gallery openings from which these plucky women might be characters. Assembled through blocks of colour painted inside thick, black sketchy lines, the figures exist somewhere between cartoons and painterly draftsmanship. They are, after all scaled up versions of her practiced drawings and sketches. Fancy Problems is Ella Kruglyanskaya’s first exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery and the New York painter’s return to London after her debut at Studio Voltaire.

Sprüth Magers
Keith Arnatt
Absence of the Artist
1-9 September

Photographic evidence of the late British conceptual artist Keith Arnatt’s complete dematerialization is exhibited alongside a sculptural recreation at Sprüth Magers London Gallery. The exhibition Absence of the Artist includes works of conceptual dry wit conceived between 1967-72 including The Absence of the Artist (1968) exhibited here for the first time. The year after Sol LeWitt buried a box to hide the product of his artistic practice (an action paradoxically remembered for the photographic evidence), Arnatt buried himself in a work titled Self-Burial (1969) evidenced by nine photographs and exhibited at Sprüth Magers next to Absence. On Art History’s slippery slope of conceptual art and dematerialization it quickly became evident that the death of the author was about autonomy not literal disappearance, and ideas as art works had a floor. Sprüth Magers’ exhibition provides an answer to Arnatt’s question: ‘Do we even need the actions of the artist to declare something an artwork?’ Life as an artist would be no different from any other life were it not for their documentation and a place in which that documentation were accepted as evidence of artistic action. Presented to a generation of people who act and participate for the sake of documentation, and in an artistic era where the artist’s presence is valued as an artwork, it is not only crucial to remember who began asking those questions, but it is paramount that we continue to ask them at all.

Gagosian Gallery
Thomas Ruff
Nature Morte
6 August – 26 September

Thomas Ruff’s recent Negatives series at the Gagosian Gallery are treasures mined from the grammar, structures and processes of analogue photography by digital means. A student of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruff learned an objective composition and system of categorisation. From scientifically formulaic compositions, beginning with passport-style portraiture, Ruff’s techniques and subjects also became scientific. Recent works include the use of night-vision photography, NASA reconnaissance images and photography’s own scientific development working towards (Gagosian illuminates) inventing a meta-photographic genre. The photographs in Nature Morte represent his pursuit of the photogram. The photogram pioneered by Man Ray during the early twentieth century produced glowing white silhouettes with black backgrounds similar to negatives by placing objects directly between light and photo paper. Ruff transforms albumen prints through digital technology to appear as negatives, the original means to the photographic end. The 22 by 28 centimeter dimensions refer to the size of the glass plate negatives that could be exposed with a large camera in the nineteenth century. The blue and white images at Gagosian Gallery are of ethereal plants, some like ghostly smoke, and some with detail so crisp the texture is exposed. In this particular example of meta-photography, Ruff hints at the limitations of historical processes and adopts the photographic means as an aesthetic end goal while pushing the limits of camera-less photography.

David Zwirner
Pedro Alvarez, Wilfredo Arcay, Mario Carreño, Salvador Corratgé, Sandú Darié, Luis Martínez Pedro, Alberto Menocal, José Mijares, Pedro de Oraá, José Ángel Rosabal, Loló Soldevilla, and Rafael Soriano
Concrete Cuba
5 September – 3 October

David Zwirner celebrates the history of their London location in the group show of Cuban geometric abstraction, Concrete Cuba. The group of ten painters and sculptors Los Diez (formed in 1959) worked towards clean, geometric abstraction. Their style not only coincided with contemporaneous abstract movements in America, but also responded to cultural and political upheaval. After Fulgencio Batista’s military coup in 1952, Cuba underwent a rapid transformation becoming an urban, international city with growing national capital due to American tourism and imports leading to a rising nationalist sentiment. International artistic movements that influenced Los Diez include Neo-Plasticism, Constructivism, and post-Cubism from which there is communal use of large planes of solid colour. However, the ‘plastic’ components akin to Piet Mondrian’s grids were not in reference to nature or politics, the shapes produced by Los Diez were assembled on a purely non-representational and philosophical basis. Their utopian vision, existing outside the Batista dictatorship, did not suffer political displacement until Castro’s Revolution in 1959. Shown more than fifty years later, there is something undeniably digital about the hardedge geometry. Despite the aging paint and sculptural arrangements, the vision of a symbol-less utopia is the familiar aesthetic of a pixelated close-up.

Words: Alice Pelot © Artlyst 2015