Liberty and Anarchy. Nike Savvas. Leeds Art Gallery. 22-01-13

IMG_0057The exhibition verbiage tells us that Nike Savvas, born in 1964, is one of the most significant Australian artists of her generation, but she is not well known in England so it is good to have the chance to see her work here in Leeds art gallery for the first time. It is her first show here in Britain for ten years. There is both a collection of recent work and a large site specific installation which has been made especially for the gallery, which gives the exhibition its title, Liberty and Anarchy.

 It’s a wonderfully accessible exhibition, especially for someone who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, owned a spirograph, and remembers the time when there was a fashion for string art kits and pulsating “psychedelic” images were everywhere. Nike Savage has been called an “installation mathematician” and the open and closed sculptural forms which she has made are a collection of large three dimensional shapes, wooden frames strung with coloured thread, making a wonderful juxtaposition of severe straight edges, elegant curves and repeating patterns. They are light and airy and beautiful to look at. Colour is important too, both vibrant and subtle, forming shaded patterns within patterns. It is easy to see resonances from the work of Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth in them, but this work has a kind of vibrant joy of its own. It may not spring from an especially original starting point but it is taking the ideas of the previous generation and running with them, taking them to a new place, which is an interesting and worthwhile thing to do. These are very precise, ordered, pieces of work, calm and self possessed, which seem to have nothing to declare except their beauty. I liked them very much.

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I like the idea that things so precisely created and so perfectly designed and ordered can produce a sense of freedom and throw up unexpected and unusual effects as you look at them, almost in spite of an attempt to pin them down. What you get is much more than the sum of its parts. I have no idea whether that is what was meant by the title but it’s what I have decided it means!

The major single work, Art and Anarchy which fills one of the gallery spaces, seems to me to be a real tribute to “op art” you can’t look at it without thinking of the vibrant colour and patterns in the work of Bridget Riley. It is made up of eighteen vibrant industrial coloured polypropylene screens. As you look at them and stare through the coloured bands of plastic your eyes move and the patterns of colour that you see change and dissolve in front of your eyes. It is quite mesmerising.

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I shall be on the look out for more opportunities to see Nike Savvas’ work. Some of the other installations which she has made elsewhere look breathtaking- rather like the work of Yayoi Kusama. I hope that she doesn’t leave it another ten years before we get the chance!

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Gordon Baldwin. Objects For a Landscape. York Art Gallery. 24-02-12

The exhibition Objects For a Landscape at York Art Gallery, a room filled with a careful selection of the work of the ceramicist Gordon Baldwin, is a fine sight and a tribute to a long and dedicated career. When you first walk in and see them as a group, in a single space, they seem to form a single vision, a sombre almost monochrome mostly matt glazed collection with touches of browns and blues. They have real presence and gravity. Bulbous, yearning vessels with dark internal spaces and openings that you can peer into, their surfaces striated and meticulously drawn on. I was not surprised to hear him say in the accompanying video that they are serious works with darkness in them, and for someone who spends eight hours a week with a camera on a large and very beautiful beach the association with the kind of rich bulbous stones I see each day was immediately obvious. Gordon Baldwin’s beach is in North Wales, at Porth Neigwl, but when I read his statement about it in the exhibition verbiage I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“There is a beach in Wales I call “the place of stones”. It was found decades ago by a pin on a map. This chance event discovered me and chance has directed my projects and widened my horizons. In this place I looked for emotional correspondences. I listened to the sea alone and I stared at the landscape almost empty of people. I celebrated it with my camera. Such places are best faced alone and now they are in my studio with me.”
His work is restrained and deeply contemplative. Sometimes a pot will remain in his studio for a long time before being finished while he “does a lot of staring” at them and this shows. These are not works which have been produced in a rush of bravado and creativity. They have been nurtured and coaxed into life with great care. He talks about the surfaces being the most difficult aspect of his work, and sometimes thinks of the surface of a pot as a canvas. “You can’t just stare at a canvas. You have to do something with it.” Drawing “activates” the vessel. Almost no high gloss glazes or bright colours are used and when they are, as in a swathe of shining back or a small rainbow of colour across the corner of a piece they seem to shout. They are gentle, delicate pieces which seem to hold their strength in check with great dignity. I found it particularly satisfying to look at them when two pieces were paired together, their echoing forms seeming to comfort and reflect each other. I also enjoyed looking down through openings into the darkness inside, rather as you can in some of Anish Kapoor’s work. I was also reminded of the work of Barbara Hepworth but these works are not so serene as Hepworth’s sculpture. They have reached a point of harmony by hard graft. The delicate slightly torn edges on some of them reminded me of Japanese pottery. They hold memories and seem to have a past. Had I read the following quote before seeing the pieces I might well have thought it fanciful, but the pots had already shown me the truth of it.
“I find myself making vessels that punctuate oceans, in the same way as a bird’s call will mark an internal landscape forever. The sound of a wind will describe a landscape and a vessel remembers it for me.”
As well as making his work in the studio and teaching at the Central School of Art and Design and Goldsmiths Gordon Baldwin spent almost forty years teaching sculpture and pottery at Eton College. We hear a lot about old Etonians going on to work in the financial sector or politics. I hope that some of them during those years were also inspired to design and create by having the privilege of contact with a gifted artist who also clearly loved to teach.
This is a beautiful little exhibition. A little crowded and plainly lit perhaps, but the pots make their presence felt in a very real and striking way in spite of that.

In one of the upstairs gallery rooms there is a gallery of pots which have been selected by Gordon Baldwin from York Museums Trust’s ceramics collection which forms an interesting complement to the exhibition. He has called the selection Excitations and it describes some of his artistic loves and influences. The great names are there, Thomas Toft, Lucie Rie, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and some lovely early medieval jugs. I particularly liked a tall thin bottle shaped pot, striped in brown and cream, by William Staite Murray. It made me smile to myself, having found out a little about Gordon Baldwin’s character through his work and through hearing him speak, when I read a note next to it explaining that the two men “didn’t get on” when they met. It didn’t surprise me. A man who could say boldly, as Murray did, “My pots are ART, I shall charge ART prices”, was certainly of a very different mindset to the artist that I had been finding out about. I also liked a lovely restrained blue and white dish with four simple orchids on it made in 1930 by Tomimoto Kenkichi and six dear little brown egg cups by Harry Davis made in 1969.

The Hepworth. Wakefield. 16-12-11

The new Hepworth gallery in Wakefield, which opened in May 2011, has been beautifully thought out and designed by David Chipperfield. It is a stark, low key building for a down to earth city which has seen hard times with the demise of much of the mining industry, a series of quietly elegant grey blocks rising up out of the River Calder on an industrial island. It has been built to a very high standard of finish inside and out, and given the current economic climate it is already hard to imagine another major project of this kind being built in the near future. The city is lucky to have it. There was some wild talk of Wakefield getting a Guggenheim for the North of England but that isn’t what has happened. Frank Gehry’s masterpiece would be far too in your face for the sometimes dull flat light of Northern England, too flashy for a dour Yorkshire landscape and far too much of a show off to house the quietly elegant work of Barbara Hepworth. This gallery just sits there. It doesn’t advertise itself, it prefers to wait quietly for you to find it. In the same way its home city is proud of it, but we don’t shout about that kind of thing much in Yorkshire.

The interior galleries are beautiful spaces with slot windows giving views of the river and the cathedral, allowing an unsentimental and clear sense of space. We are in the real world and never forget it as we look through the sculptures into the outside. The windows provide dramatic light across the spaces, augmented by added filler light from top light strips. This is most effective in Gallery 5, the plasters gallery, which is a truly stunning space lit like a piece of theatre from one end with light falling across the pieces from above. When I walked in there for the first time the room attendant smiled at me when she saw my jaw drop. Like the exterior of the building everything is quietly and carefully finished, from typeface to stairwells to locker spaces, designed to create a universal language for the building. It really works. Everything is just as it should be with no false notes or distractions.

Barbara Hepworth has been given an enormous posthumous gift, a permanent home for a large selection of her own work, much of which has been generously donated by her family. It sits alongside that of some of her contemporaries and more than holds its own in a great era for sculpture. Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, John Skeaping, Paul Nash and Constantin Brancusi are all represented in the collection and it is a great chance to see them all up against each other. There are clear resonances between their work as well as contrasts and you come away proud of the way a woman was able to succeed in what was very much a man’s world, making strong pieces that were full of presence and vigour. Sculpture is a very physical craft and it is rather wonderful that in Hepworth’s work this strength is combined with a quiet feminine elegance. Clean, clear lines and curves are combined with muted colours and textures to form works that are simple and perfectly balanced. As well as seeing the works themselves the gallery gives us an insight into how Hepworth worked. Her bench and some of her tools are there on view, a physical reminder of a very physical craft and the most stunning gallery is the one full of plaster working models, which are work in progress, fortunate survivors and pale ghosts of what they were about to be. They are impressive works in their own right, well worth looking at and quite different in feel to what they would become when cast. I think that Hepworth possibly realised this and this is why they were kept.

 

As well as the permanent collection there are four galleries which are kept for temporary exhibitions. In December 2011 when I visited these housed The Unquiet Head, an exhibition of the work of Claire Wood, brightly coloured, twisting and tormented landscapes on a huge scale, made especially for the Hepworth, and it was satisfying to see that the gallery spaces worked just as well for the work of an artist who couldn’t be more different from Hepworth herself. There were clear echoes of the work of Paul Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland in her bravura sense of colour and drama, so it was clear that a tradition of landscape painting was being developed and taken forward and her work richly deserved its place.  She has also been working on a massive outside wall for the 2012 Olympic park and I should imagine that it will be stunning.

Just to add the icing on the cake I can report that the food at the Hepworth is very good indeed, not at all overpriced, and the staff are friendly, polite and informative……. even when you inadvertently attempt to take a picture where it is not allowed.

All photos are copyright Patricia Rogers. Please respect this.

This is sculpture. Tate Liverpool.15th May 2009.

This exhibition is a bit of a sculptures greatest hits, and as such it is rather predictable. You very much see what you expect to see and tick off famous pieces as you walk round. Usually the pieces on show were the predictable choices, or the iconic ones, depending on your point of view. It would have been a good way to introduce someone to sculpture who had no knowledge of it, although the labelling and information was poor.
There were some gems among the exhibits. A wonderful mirrored box made in 2007 by Yayoi Kusama kept me and a number of others enthralled as we looked into its holes and saw ourselves reflected amongst the kaleidoscopic lines, circles and colours in the interior. If I had seen nothing else but this I would have been happy. I was glad that my personal favourites Cornelia Parker and Richard Long were represented and it was fun to see elderly carousel projectors whirring away- a reminder of a time when they were cutting edge technology. A pale grainy Gilbert and George were also there as living sculptures on an elderly television, slowly getting sozzled on Gordons Gin. There was also a huge, delicate and beautiful Barbara Hepworth work, the largest she ever made as it was the only time she got hold of a tropical hardwood tree trunk big enough. A beautiful Modigliani head too. Lots to enjoy then, and a few things to turn your nose up at.
I had a good time downstairs taking photographs of Jacob and the Angel, an epic monolithic masterpiece by Epstein which I love.