Category Archives: conceptual

Real icons at the NPG

Published on Culture 24

Fabiola, Francis Alÿs, National Portrait Gallery, London, until September 20 2009

Amid the many famous faces at the National Portrait Gallery are two rooms packed with 300 images of a fourth century Christian saint. It’s doubtful they capture her likeness, but they bear a striking resemblance to one another.

On all sides Fabiola gazes out in profile from beneath the hood of a red cloak. She comes in varying shapes and sizes, sometimes framed, sometimes not. Her image crowds every available wall and even runs over the doors.

The longer you look, the more differences appear. In at least two of the portraits she faces right or wears green. A handful are embroidered, one even made from varnished beans. Many are signed, by different people. Most appear to be the work of amateurs.

Their condition is as poor as their quality, which is a clue to what is happening. These portraits were not commissioned or bought from auction houses but picked up in flea markets all around the world over a 15-year period.

They share primary characteristics because they share the same original, a late 19th century impression of the saint by French painter Jean-Jacques Henner. His painting is now lost and the ones on display here are worked up from reproductions.

All of which casts the exhibition as another thought-provoking Francis Alÿs prank, especially given its context at the NPG – this is the same artist who sent a live peacock to an opening of the Venice Biennale.

But the latest show does more than poke fun. At the request of Alÿs, the walls have been painted a rich, ecclesiastical shade of green and by sheer volume the many kitsch pieces on display achieve a cumulative gravity.

These portraits may be copies of a copy, but that’s no reason not to take them seriously.

Chichester's Material World

Published on Culture 24

Contemporary Eye: Material Matters, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until September 2009

The courtyard of Pallant House Gallery is a place of contrasts. The red brickwork of the historic townhouse lies opposite the cool exterior of a modern exhibition space. It’s a stone’s throw from Chichester town centre, and today the birdsong is intense.

Something Going On Above My Head is a musical arrangement of 2,000 birds taken from archives all around the world. Columbian artist Oswaldo Maciá installed his sound sculpture in the loggia so that it connects with the garden. The sycamores look suddenly exotic.

Contemporary Eye: Material Matters is all about the challenges of collecting and exhibiting pieces like this. The ten artists here work in light, chalk stone, wool and even cake. It’s a show which asks what it means to own works that change with their time or setting.

Two pieces look especially at home in the wood-panelled bedrooms of the house. Langlands & Bell have designed a black and white carpet based on photos of a government building in Rio de Janeiro. The Ministry (Health and Education) is a dizzying, op-art creation which looks as if you could fall through it.

Elsewhere a folding billboard screens a four-poster bed. A Gucci poster has been mounted on MDF board and holes cut where the model and headline should be. Posters / Screen, Body and Text Removed by the late Angus Fairhurst is neither furniture nor advertising, but an objet d’art with dreamlike properties.

The gallery’s more modern rooms are better for showing projections. Cohesion by Charles Sandison fills a long wall with short text that coalesces to make figures, then dissolves. Only three words are used – “you”, “me” and “us” – but behind the shifting forms is a complex, impersonal piece of software. It’s mesmerising.

Curator Frances Guy says she is keen to promote collecting for the wider public. “There are ways you can spend your money, and you can buy an artwork which might not cost you too much now but that might increase in value,” she argues. For those who can afford artwork like this, their display and conservation are both major considerations. The rest of us can but dream.