Mens Suits by Charles LeDray

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Mens Suits by Charles LeDray, The Fire Station, London, until September 20 2009

First, note the missing apostrophe from the title of this show, in which attention to detail is everything. It’s an intentional flaw which reads like a warning to expect something from the lower end of fashion.

The typo seems to tell you a lot about Charles LeDray. This is his first major show in Europe and his work is little known. He’s not someone with traditional artistic training, indeed he’s largely self taught. And he began his career as a security guard at Seattle Art Museum

But whether the mistake is defiant, self-deprecating or merely ironic is hard to say. From a technical point of view, LeDray is a highly accomplished sculptor. Mens Suits took three years to make, all by hand.

Three pieces are on display at the Fire Station, each one a miniature retail environment. One is a posh Men’s Outfitters complete with a short tailor’s dummy and a 360-degree fan of diminutive ties. One is a thrift shop, with circular racks for jackets and shirts plus a table groaning with piles of folded t-shirts. The third is a laundry area, furnished with more clothes, racks, laundry bags, pallets and a scaled down ironing board.

There are hundreds of garments, all expertly sewn, and hundreds of miniature hangers. Up to four little buttons have been fixed on well-cut jacket cuffs, and there’s a row of tiny gloves – but no one could ever wear these clothes. They wouldn’t even fit a child.

It represents a bewildering amount of work, which calls into question why an artist should go to so much trouble. All we are left with is an effect, albeit a powerful one. The inevitable absence of customers or even sales staff fills these scenes with pathos. Despite the meticulous care taken in production, an air of neglect hangs over the dusty rails of the store and the disorder of the back room.

Suspended ceilings hang low over each installation, limiting full-sized visitor’s views. What this show means is never made clear: it’s quite possible we are not meant to know.

Cold Corners by Eva Rothschild

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Cold Corners by Eva Rothschild, Duveens’ Commission, Tate Britain, London, until November 29 2009

Sometimes less space can be more. Tate Britain’s Duveens Galleries aren’t quite as large as the Turbine Hall just down the river at Tate Modern, but the neo-classical surroundings offer quite different possibilities.

When commissioned to fill the area in 2007, Mark Wallinger reconstructed Brian Haw’s peace camp from Parliament Square. A year later, Martin Creed orchestrated sprinters to complete 70m dashes in the name of art.

Now it’s the turn of Eva Rothschild, and the first sculpture stretches the length of these two imposing halls. It’s black, just 76mm wide and minimalist. Chances are it would have got lost within the cavernous belly of London’s other Tate building.

The late 19th century galleries also offer more to play with. Rothschild’s installation wraps itself round pillars and climbs through the gaps left by architrave and arch. It’s all jagged edges and gloss finish, so the contrast with the smooth, sandy stone walls could hardly be more pronounced.

These 26 interconnected triangles of aluminum box tubing are the Dublin-born artist’s first large scale work. She describes the feat of engineering as “a confused and anxious alternate architecture within the galleries.”

The result is a structure which can hardly be taken in at a single glance. It requires you to walk the length of the building, and in places invites you to cross through to the other side. The piece clangs when an unsuspecting visitor trips over it, which happens from time to time. You only wonder how anyone could miss it.

Darwin at The Fitzwilliam Museum

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Endless Forms: Darwin – Natural Science and the Visual Arts, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until October 4 2009

An 1838 print from The Penny Magazine shows us Jenny, sitting on a chair, wearing children’s clothes, holding a ball. It’s remarkable, because this little lady was a captive Orangutan. Jenny was one of the first apes to appear in London, dead or alive.

It was the same year Charles Darwin first sketched his famous evolutionary tree in a notebook and added the words, “I think.” Apes weren’t only a bit like children – they were also our ancestors. It was an imaginative leap that would compound the public’s fascination for monkeykind.

There was, of course, some horror. Our new relatives were traditionally viewed as clever but sadistic animals. The Cat’s Paw, by Sir Edwin Landseer, depicts a monkey enlisting an unlucky cat to extract chestnuts from a fire.

But looking more closely, artists soon picked up on more innocent qualities. An 1852 watercolour by Joseph Wolf shows a young chimpanzee who could almost be one of the family. Darwin must have been impressed, since he later employed Wolf to help him prove that some simians actually smile.

This is just a fraction of what can be gathered at a brilliant exhibition to celebrate 200 years since the birth of Darwin. It clearly demonstrates that geology, paleontology, natural selection and anthropology have inspired a good share of 19th and early 20th century art, and it documents the crucial role illustrators and artists played in the development of evolutionary theory.

There are a smattering of masterpieces on display, including Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Degas. This bronze sculpture caused uproar at the time, when critics compared the subject to an animal. They may have been missing the point, because Darwin’s theories on our kinship with beasts were a direct influence.

Other big names include Turner, Cézanne and Monet, but of equal prominence here are some lesser-known figures who would barely register in a history of art. John Gould, who was both ornithologist and illustrator, accompanied Darwin on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands, and was the first to recognise the differing species of Finch and Mockingbird.

It was to prove a vital discovery to science and, ultimately, of no less importance to art.

The Elephant Bed by John Grade

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John Grade – The Elephant Bed, Fabrica, Brighton, until August 31 2009

Brighton and Hove rests on a layer of powdered elephant, but do not be alarmed. The pachyderms in question lived in prehistoric times, sharing the region with buffalo and deer.

Their remains are collected in a strip of shale that washed out from under the Sussex downs about the time of the last Ice Age, some 200,000 years ago. This is now the bedrock on which the seaside city rests, giving its name to the latest giant installation at Fabrica.

There’s more to this geology lesson because the animal remains are mixed with chalk, and the local chalk is formed by coccolithophores. It was 80 to 110 million years ago that these tiny algae met a similar fate to the elephants. The South coast is now famous for their calcified sediment.

That’s quite a lot to get your head round, and this show doesn’t quite deliver on the full story. The Elephant Bed simply conjures up the lifespan of the stunningly-named algae, which appear as equally spectacular white suspended cones.

Fifteen of them hang from the building’s high rafters, each made from hundreds of small paper trays. Four of the coccolithophores appear part-submerged in an oily pool which occupies a third of the gallery floor, the water creeping up their stems.

The most striking thing about the display is the way these huge cones appear to float, at various heights, above the gallery floor. In the slightest breeze they come alive and sway in an approximation of the plankton they represent.

Visitors can experience the thrill of being microscopically small and wandering among the swaying life forms – there’s even one you can duck under and peer inside. Little or no background knowledge is required to enjoy the installation on this level.

Exhibition notes reveal that John Grade is fascinated by landscapes and has a thing for the geology of this part of England. In conveying this he has been partly successful, although you may be disappointed to find a lack of elephants at this show.

Perversion in Hove

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Deviants, Hove Museum and Art Gallery, Hove, until September 13 2009

Whereas artists are encouraged to break rules, craftspeople generally aren’t. From potters, metalworkers and textile experts, the public usually demands something useful or at the very least decorative.

Deviants is a touring exhibition which makes an example of some 16 makers of craft objects who refuse to conform to the stereotypes of their trade. The work on display serves no purpose other than to startle, shock and amuse.

Take Teapot on 15 Legs by Irish ceramicist Jill Crowley. You would need a syringe to fill it and an age to wait for your brew to trickle out of the perversely narrow spout. And yes, it has 15 legs, which is at least 12 more than is strictly necessary.

Then again, Teapot by Angus Suttie is equally implausible. This one has two spouts, one of which looks stuck on as an afterthought. A tasteful glaze might have rectified matters, but the paintwork looks half finished.

Some works hint at functionality, but others just laugh at the idea. Brick-Filled Bag by Gillian Lowndes is rendered redundant by the eponymous section of wall. Hello? by Richard Slee does indeed pose a question. Is it a pair of vases? A pair of skittles? The viewer is left mystified.

But what you might do with Hans Stofer’s work is more immediately apparent. Grape Trap is an elegant steel prison for an unsuspecting grape and Grape Run is a similar contraption for rolling your captive back and forth.

You’d think that a piece of knitting might be less bizarre, but the glove on display is about a metre long and has been designed for 25 fingers and thumbs. At least Hand of Good, Hand of God by Freddie Robins is a sensible shade of grey-blue.

Elsewhere, Christopher Williams has fashioned an exquisite pale pink bowl that looks both operational and aesthetically pleasing. There’s one drawback, inevitably. His Bum Bowl is shaped like a rear end.

“All the works have been selected to show the stranger edge of craft,” Amanda Jones, of organisers the Crafts Council, has explained. It’s a boundary which certainly blurs into the realms of art.

Mauritania via Shoreditch

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Currents of Time: New work by Zineb Sedira, Iniva at Rivington Place, until 25 July 2009

From the window of Rivington Place, three photos offer a mirthless reproach to a comedy café opposite. Boats sink into a menacing sea. Time and the elements blacken what remains. The camera freezes each vessel in a watery grave, just off the coast of Mauritania. It’s part of the world we would rather forget about.

Inside the gallery are more photographs of dereliction. Oil tankers sit stranded, leaking toxic waste onto the beach. Heaps of scrap are left to warp and rust in the desert sun. Boats have become environmental hazards with a lyrical, haunting quality.

The focus of this show by Zineb Sedira is a fragmented video installation called Floating Coffins. Some 14 screens display scenes from this inhospitable stretch of coastline in North Africa. There are more deserted boats, as well as crumbling buildings, lonely salvage workers and, lo and behold, flamingos.

Mauritania appears to be more than a dumping ground for ships. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise. Which gives us the sad spectacle of gulls flocking in front of a decommissioned tanker and pelicans hopping around an oil-stained beach. With so much sun, sea and sand, it’s almost idyllic.

But what really darkens the mood is the astonishing soundtrack by Mikhail Karikis who, in collaboration with Sedira, collected sounds over a period of time spent on location. Eight spherical speakers hang from the ceiling and together they make the darkened auditorium shudder like a vast ship pulling into its final berth.

It’s a sound that hints at the deadliest side of life here. The coast is a treacherous departure point for many who leave Africa in search of work in Europe. Mobility, migration and displacement are key themes for Sedira, who grew up in Paris as a second generation Algerian.

Floating Coffins is her most complex work to date, but it should have broad appeal. “We expect people to come who’ve never heard of the artist,” says curator Tessa Jackson. “and for them to be able to engage with the work.” It’s recommended, even if you’ve never heard of Mauritania.

A temporary museum in Hove

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Small Wonders: A Museum of Imagination by Zara Wood, Boxbird Gallery, Hove, until July 12 2009

Despite recent illustration work for Top Shop and Stussy, a new solo show by Zara Wood travels a long way from the catwalk, taking you instead to a dusty world of antique display cases, animals which may be stuffed and anthropological curiosities.

The collection of nearly 40 pieces is numbered similarly to exhibits in a museum and if the sequence doesn’t quite tell a story, it does build a narrative effect as familiar motifs repeat themselves. There’s a hoard of pirates, a bevy of sad-eyed girls and a parliament of owls.

This works so well that No.25, The Invisible Girl with Owl Portrait, need only supply you with a tiny picture of the ubiquitous bird. The frame is otherwise empty for you to conjure the female figure yourself.

There are many more light touches, such as the wave made from rolled paper in The Storm Subsided, which threatens to overwhelm a small boat containing another owl, while a picture-book moon scowls down from the backboard.

Here, as elsewhere, Wood fills a cabinet with 3D scenery to create what she calls a diorama. She says her show is inspired by the expeditions that helped fill the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Museum of Natural History in New York. These miniature stage sets capture that best.

It’s a short voyage round the Boxbird Gallery, but it does offer the chance to meet a full-size stag. Charcoal lines and packing cardboard are both used for Stag with Friend. This tour de force is as large as most of the other work is small, yet still feels like an element of scenery.

The beast’s friend perches on an antler, a strange bird-child. “I’m an only child, so I had lots of early relationships with pets and animals, and they are always quite close to my work,” says Wood. There’s a sense of make believe to this show which is infectious.

Real icons at the NPG

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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

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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.