Damien Hirst at the Wallace Collection

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No Love Lost, Blue Paintings by Damien Hirst, The Wallace Collection, London, until January 24 2009.

How often does middle-aged famous millionaire Damien Hirst really think about death? Well, by the evidence of his new show it is the only thing on his mind.

Much has been made of his decision to return to painting. In fact he returns time and again to a single painting, the still life momento mori. In other words, he now paints skulls – lots of them.

You might imagine he also paints fruit, flowers, dead pheasants and the like, but no. Seasonal produce isn’t dark enough for the former YBA, although he does throw in ashtrays, shark jaws and iguanas.

Some paintings do feature a lonely two-dimensional lemon. This may be included for the sake of its colour, or its art historical significance, or simply because it goes well with tequila. It’s not clear.

Nevertheless, colour is the second most obsessive aspect here. Brooding blues and silvery blacks dominate most compositions and, despite a nod to Picasso in the show’s subtitle, Francis Bacon is the real influence at work.

Hirst credits Bacon with inspiring his colour scheme and has also taken on his rough edges. Two of the most theatrical pieces are even monumental triptychs.

But whereas Bacon painted suffering flesh, Hirst has stuck with comedy bones. There is very little pain in this vision of mortality. The works resemble X-rays or kids’ book illustrations. Some of the skulls almost grin.

As well they might, because the new show is bang on brand. Trademark skulls and shark jaws aside, there are plenty of spots and butterflies too. That could be why the 25 paintings have already sold for a reported £50m.

But it is not about the money. Hirst’s move to painting is a gesture towards art history and the artist’s own connections to the past. Look, he has written a guide to 26 other pieces in the Wallace Collection.

It reads like the script for some yoof TV, so not much angst there either. If Hirst thinks about anything 24/7 it is more likely to be art rather than death, and his own chances of immortality.

Daniel Pryde-Jarman interview

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An interview with curator and gallery owner Daniel Pryde-Jarman from Brighton’s Grey Area

Daniel Pryde-Jarman is on his way to becoming a doctor of curatorial practice, a leading authority on the concept of heterotopia. “It basically it means other places, spaces of otherness,” he explains. “Heterotopia comes from Foucault’s concepts of otherness and psychologically different spaces.”

Jarman is no stranger to unusual venues. As an art student he put on exhibitions around Portsmouth in settings including a lift, a window and an emergency exit. “That was quite amusing,” he says.

“At every opening I had to prove to the Health and Safety Officer that the exhibition could be dismantled in case of fire very quickly and not get in the way.”

Now he demonstrates the value of otherness by running an independent and subterranean gallery in Brighton called Grey Area. The space was opened in March 2006 and, since then, has held more than 30 shows and numerous spoken word events, film screenings, artist talks and discussions.

Jarman looked at various shops and industrial units in the quest for his alternative venue, finally choosing a storage area he discovered by accident.

“It had really fallen into disarray,” he recalls. “It literally had a cooker in the main exhibiting space and all these soiled clothes with a kind of hermit’s nest in the corner in the back room, so it was pretty different to how it is now.”

Despite obvious improvements, the gallery is still intimate. “All the exhibitions we produce have to be tailored to the space and we don’t have a lot of it,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating to work on a show within those confines, but it’s also something that obviously we embrace.”

Nevertheless, the long-haired curator balks at the word challenge: “To say it’s a challenge almost gives it the wrong tone. It is difficult to work with artists and create something that works. It’s a difficult thing to do.”

In one recent highlight for the gallery, David Blandy transformed Grey Area into a kind of basement youth club. Jarman describes this relationship with the British pop artist as “symbiotic.”

“I guess there are certain similarities or certain threads between the artists we work with,” he says.

“A lo-fi kind of aesthetic, a certain kind of immediacy and a lack of facade or pomposity is something we try and explore.”

Not content with one “other” space, Jarman is keen to produce more off-site projects in future. He is currently assembling a line up of artists to perform a gig in a deconsecrated church. The December event will take place at the nearby Fabrica gallery, and include 2001 Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed.

Nor is it inconceivable that Grey Area could relocate. Like many Brightonians, Jarman appears to have a love-hate relationship with the city.

“There are a hell of a lot of artists and creative people in Brighton and not a lot of spaces for them to do things outside of pubs,” he accepts.

“I think that it’s really important to have an independent space which you can approach as an emerging artist or even as an internationally known one, where something can happen without the bureaucracy – a place for ideas rather than legislation.”

Where will that be then? No doubt heterotopia.

Artists Anonymous at Riflemaker

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Artists Anonymous – Lucifer Over London, Riflemaker, London, until November 21 2009

David was apparently hewn from a 27-stone block of marble after which Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel single-handed. Would he not, by the end of it, have looked something like Arnold Schwarzenegger?

The question is asked on camera by a sock puppet in this London show by Berlin-based Artists Anonymous. The footwear not only has good comic timing, but also conceals the group’s identity. Art, they say, should matter more than ego.

Instead, consider their fresh approach to picture making, called the after image. Most works here feature twice: the first painted in negative, putting dark shades and new features where the eye sees light. The second  is a photograph in which colours have been inverted to produce a recognizable yet twice-removed scene.

So Pan Dreaming is a murky composition of a child in a push chair, a pensive adult form, the reflection of a figure on the floor and a collection of balloons. But one look at the after image, Pan’s Prison, confirms that all those elements are there and the whole thing is every bit as nightmarish as you expected.

The technique produces a highly distinctive palette. The colours are either sickly, muddy or bleached out. They call to mind another non-realist school of German painting, Expressionism, and blur into one another, bringing a surreal vagueness to the subject matter.

The paintings are augmented by some found sculpture and a basement screening room straight from one of the neighbourhood’s sleazier establishments (we are, after all, in Soho). On screen a very blonde woman in a gimp costume harangues the audience from behind a Punch and Judy stand.

The sock puppets describe the after image as a world of pure imagination, a retinal memory containing an infinity of possibilities when presented with any given scene. And to view the world this way, they argue, is to enter the sock dimension, which incidentally is where all those missing socks actually go.

Who said the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?

Made in Brighton at Ink_D

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Exhibition: Made in Brighton, Ink_D Gallery, Brighton, until October 4 2009

For a small gallery, this is a big group show. Seventeen artists have been squeezed onto the wall of Ink_D in the North Laine. All are Brighton based and much of the work is Brighton inspired. So just how much talent can one seaside town accommodate? Each has been given 30 square cm to demonstrate what they can do.

James Cauty, who once set fire to £1 million of profits from his band KLF, is still causing controversy, just on a smaller scale.

Stamps Are So Gay is a page of perforated covers showing two cowboys engaged in a lewd act. As with a photo stand from the pier, there are oval holes where the faces should be, and a young straight couple peers through.

Imbue has also made a statement. Taking cues from the logo of Brighton and Hove City Council, he has made an emblem which looks more like DisneyLand. Perhaps life here is too much fun.

Another comment on the city’s reputation for hedonism comes from satirical cartoonists Modern Toss. Come To Brighton shows a couple of daytrippers on the train, taking a stroll, dancing and finally throwing up into a dustbin.

Andy Doig designed the neon sign above the gallery door and his medium is light. He has responded well to the brief with a fairground bulb mounted on a section of painted wood from a pier.

A gaudy cable joins it to the mains. Ride Relic is a simple, well-executed slice of city life.

Another sculpture provides another highlight. Sean Madden has taken inspiration from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to produce a cut-throat razor with the words “I Love You” engraved in the blade.

It is a brilliant evocation of both old style gangsterism and also the dark side of a dirty weekend.

There are 25 pieces by every artist and all the works cost just £75. Whether you’re coming to Brighton for the day or you’ve lived here all your life, it would be hard to find a better souvenir.

Moctezuma at the British Museum

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Exhibition: Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, The British Museum, London, until January 24 2010

Before too long you come across a likely looking knife. The handle is sculpted into a crouching warrior and covered in tiny chips of turquoise mosaic. The blade is a vicious looking slice of obsidian. But according to the plaque this was a ceremonial ornament, never actually used for human sacrifice. The effect of this news is a strange sense of disappointment.

Not far away is a two-foot tall pot decorated to look like an eagle. A plaque reveals this would have been used to store human hearts prior to burning them as an offering to the gods. Now that’s more like what we look for in our Aztecs.

But as curator Colin McEwan has been quick to point out, this exhibition is in fact about a civilization called the Mexica (pronounced Mesheeka), who were ruled by elected Emperor Moctezuma between 1502 and 1520. He has described this as “a signal moment in the history of the Americas”.

The human heart pot is in fact unfinished. Chances are the local craftsmen were interrupted by the arrival of Hernán Cortés and an army of Spaniards. It briefly seems as if the conquistadors had a righteous cause, until you come across an indigenous picture book (a codex) which shows one of Cortés’ stewards burning four Mexica nobles at the stake for late payment of tributes.

It’s an irony that Moctezuma is said to have mistaken Cortés for a god, the legendary hero Quetzalcoatl. The Emperor sent many gifts to the explorer, including a fabulous two-headed serpent made from carved wood and covered in turquoise mosaic and fragments of red thorny oyster shell. This exhibit did not have far to travel and most will recognize it from the museum’s permanent collection.

Many more astonishing works of art have come from further afield. The Monument Dedicated to Sacred Warfare is a pyramidal altarpiece made from volcanic rock. On its first visit to Europe, it sits atop a plinth in the museum reading room. In 1507, the year it was made, the Mexica were still in blissful ignorance of the war that would end all wars.

The latter part of the exhibition tells the story from the invaders’ point of view. An extensive series of oil paintings inlaid with mother of pearl, the Enconchados, relate how the kingdom slowly passed into Spanish hands. A vast screen glorifies the conquest with an epic narrative sweep. The conquistadors brought armour, swords, Christianity and disease. The Mexica gods, while awesome and mysterious, could only look on.

Hannah Rickards at the Whitechapel Gallery

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MaxMara Art Prize for Women: Hannah Rickards, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until September 23 2009

If Hannah Rickards’ latest work tells us one thing, then personal accounts are not to be trusted. So perhaps don’t believe all you’re about to read.

It centres on a phenomenon which takes place on Lake Michigan, where an inversion of temperatures causes a mirage of an inverted city. Nowhere in the show do we see photographic or video evidence for this – instead, the viewer must rely on a group of eyewitnesses.
The witnesses are all reliably dull locals, late-middle aged pillars of the community. Rickards has got them together in a non-descript institutional space. A projection screen on the back wall suggests we are in for a lesson of some sort as, indeed, we are.

Three chairs face the middle of the room, making the viewer feel they occupy a fourth. Sometimes we see empty chairs, at others Rickards blacks out the screen. She lets voice-overs speak out of the darkness or over the empty room. Competing testimonies are dubbed over each other.

One man says he can’t recall there being any colour. Another has a vivid recollection of red lights. A woman listening begins to shake her head, the shake eventually becoming a nod. Two men who are dressed identically cannot agree. The hallucinatory event is compared to a movie, a black and white photo, an Etch-a-sketch design. “I don’t think anything I actually saw actually had dimensions,” as one speaker puts it.

The 10-minute film is deliberately short on action and visual appeal. Nothing distracts from the divergence of subjective accounts. It’s a good point and well made, but the piece is so dry and economical that boredom is the occasional result, and this is not helped by poor sound quality.

Rickards herself takes an ironic standpoint on the debate. The film is called No, There was no Red. Whether you agree or not is up to you.

Dreamscapes at Art @ Five

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Dreamscapes, Art at Five, Brighton, until September 20 2009

Matisse famously said that a painting should be like a comfortable armchair. If so, Dreamscapes could well swallow you up and leave you gasping for air. There’s a lot going on in this pictorial upholstery.

The exhibition flyer coins an intriguing phrase to describe it – “a labyrinth of colour”. Most paintings use the full spectrum of all seven shades at their brightest, plus varying amounts of gold leaf and glitter.

The three artists in the show are at least technically accomplished. Nick Vivian has painted a number of woodland scenes containing richly hued trees bathed in golden light. They are gently kaleidoscopic and evoke a world of fantasy and magic, rather than closely-observed nature.

He appears to use a stencil edge to cut out the forms of sycamore leaves and a sponge to capture the effect of dense foliage. At least one piece is further dappled in gold paint.

Kim Anderson has also plundered the rainbow in the name of decorative art, but her signature technique involves drips and scratches as well as broad washes of colour.

Her abstract works are inspired by major light events such as twilights and equinoxes. A couple of smaller paintings, Oyster I and Oyster II, are more muted, and the colours have been painted over with thick whites and greys. Yes, the effect is nacreous, but it is also understated, and that is welcome.

The most overwhelming paintings in the show are by Yvonne Coomber. Her pictures feature meadows of wild flowers and, as with her colleagues, a degree of innovation.

She action paints the grass and lays the oil paint on in thick discs to make flower heads. Once again, light floods these scenes, making the whole thing even more self-consciously pretty than it already was.

Stephen Cornford – Works for Turntable

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Stephen Cornford – Works for Turntable, Permanent Gallery, Brighton, until September 20 2009

It seems unlikely the record players on display will ever make another sound. In place of one slip-mat, for example, is a stone wheel and a marble has been harnessed to the stylus. It is surely beyond repair, yet on the side is a red button and on the wall a sign inviting visitors to go ahead and press it.

Surprisingly, it works. The stone wheel turns, the marble gets dragged around its spokes, and the whole thing is amplified by a speaker in the middle of the plinth. Each device is on a timer, and so the piece of music lasts about three minutes, the length of a perfect pop song.

There are eight customized turntables in the Permanent Gallery’s exhibition, all of which dispense with vinyl, instead playing a combination of springs, wires, marbles, ball bearings, bells and gravel. Tunes you can whistle are thin on the ground, but there are drones, rattles and rumbles aplenty.

But such avant-garde use of record players does have some precedent amongst musicians. French composer Edgard Varèse experimented with phonograph turntables in the 1930s. Then in 1939 John Cage composed a piece using two variable frequency turntables to accompany a piano and cymbals.

Cornford’s turntables are likewise designed for performance. Visit the gallery at 6pm on Saturday September 19 and you can see the artist present an evening of improvised sound. If you like what you hear, there is also a limited edition 7-inch single available to accompany the exhibition.

Nothing, however, beats trying them out for yourself. Press one red button and you have to press them all.

Alexandre da Cunha – Laissez-Faire

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Laissez-Faire – Alexandre da Cunha, Camden Arts Centre, London, until September 13 2009

Some artists take inspiration from nature, and some from light: however, Alexandre da Cunha must have taken inspiration from the acquisition of a job lot of industrial mop heads.

The mops are now woven together to form a giant net, which hangs from gallery floor to ceiling and runs in a curve through the middle of the space. Their arrangement encourages the viewer to walk around, to peer through, and to treat them like a work of art but no attempt has been made to disguise their original purpose. They are cleaning products.

It is some ninety years since Marcel Duchamp signed a bottle rack and put it on display in a gallery, and the gesture continues to find echoes in the work of artists today. Brazilian sculptor Da Cunha locates recycled goods and objects sourced from pound shops, and then tends to improvise.

Another work in the room consists of three squat totem poles fashioned from white pots and topped off with incomplete plaster casts taken from coconuts. As if to advertise their uselessness, a cheap drinking straw has been placed in each. This flimsy addition challenges the dignity and certainly the worth of the artwork.

The third piece is a wall-mounted board covered with green fabric and smeared with red paint. It probably should be called a painting, except it looks more like something dug out from a skip following an accident with a tin of gloss enamel. Like the rest of Da Cunha’s work it has a difficult aesthetic. In other words, it is quite ugly.

Most people don’t visit galleries in order to view unwanted objects with limited visual appeal, but perhaps they should. Such works still make a worthwhile point about the role of the artist and can still lead one to question the very point of coming to the gallery and looking at art in the first place.

Duchamp gave it all up and took up chess. He may not have seen much future in ready-made art, but others clearly have.

Johanna Billing – I'm Lost Without Your Rhythm

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I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm – Johanna Billing, Camden Arts Centre, London, until September 13 2009.

Most conceptual art has a tendency to sharpen up the critical faculties. Johanna Billing’s video pieces, on the other hand, charm them into agreement. Be warned that this show could make you want to sing along or even dance.

Her latest film is called I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm. It has an infectious soundtrack by a Swedish band, which the artist has rerecorded with her own guest vocals. And it features a group of teenagers improvising dance routines. The footage is well-produced and some clips are played backwards to emphasize the beat.

This alone would make a perfectly watchable film, but then there’s the conceptual bit. The video was made with students in Romania and their school is on a grim East European housing estate. They begin their class by typing on obsolete machines from the GDR. It’s an unlikely milieu for contemporary dance, but the estate proves as expressive as any in the more MTV-friendly lands to the West.

An earlier film called Magical World explores similar themes. Here the setting is a run-down cultural centre in Zagreb and the activity is a music rehearsal for kids. A teacher plays piano. A girl plays the flute. Almost everyone plays maracas. And they struggle through a song in English. This melancholy number, which gives its name to the piece, was written about changing times in 1968. Here in Croatia in 2006 the times are changing again, but the young singers can’t quite seem to grasp the meaning of their song.

The most catchy work in this show is a collection of films called You Don’t Love Me Yet. Billing has chosen a little-known song by sixties psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson and staged a tour of cover performances by local bands at art fairs and galleries around the world. In Stockholm, for example, the camera lingers on the audience where expressions range from laughter, to sadness, to boredom. Our own reaction becomes just one of many possibilities.

The first film of the series takes place in a beautifully lit recording studio. The song is given an epic seven and a half minute treatment, complete with small choir. Erickson’s original track was full of anguish but this is a lush, anthemic version. Contextual play and historical comment have rarely sounded so good.