Wednesday, 13 October 2010

A Trip to the Yale Center for British Art

Visiting my friend at Yale, I decided, like any respectable history of art student, to pay a trip to the Yale Center for British Art. Well acquainted with the British collections at the Tate and National Gallery in London, I was intrigued to see what the Americans had to offer. My first impression was the building itself, concrete clad with metal fittings, more akin to an ex-industrial loft turned contemporary art gallery in New York's Chelsea, than small town Connecticut art collection.But far from being an odd juxtaposition of old and new, the spacious gallery with its monumental concrete spiral staircase, livened up the collection bringing the artworks straight into the 21st century, whether it be an abstract Ben Nicholson or a majestic Richard Wilson.

Even though I had heard that the Yale Center was the biggest repository of British art outside the UK, I was still staggered by the quantity and quality of the art displayed. Every wall is covered with phenomenal masterpieces spanning the Middle Ages right up until the present day with newly acquired works by Damian Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. Their collection of portraits is particularly impressive, including the likes of Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence. And unlike the major museums of London, overcrowded with tourists and a brief 10 second slot to see a painting, the Yale Center gives visitors the opportunity to soak up the coquettishly posed Mrs Abington by Reynolds and contemplate the stiffness and frustration of Vanessa Bell by Grant. If landscapes are more your thing, the gallery does not disappoint on that front either. The top floor is packed with paintings, notably by J. M. W. Turner (Staffa,Fingal's Cave was a particular favourite) and a stunning series of cloud studies by John Constable.

My advice is to start at the top of the building and work your way down, ending up in the gallery shop which is every anglophile's dream - London inspired Christmas decorations, union jack place mats and even Emma Bridgewater crockery. If you ever find yourself in New Haven or you're a British Yale student missing home, be sure to stop by this museum. It really is something of a marvel.

254 College Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06511. (203) 432-2800

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Benjamin Cohen and HRL Contemporary: a winning collaboration

There are times in my life as an unemployed graduate with a lot of ambition and a little work experience, that I find myself embroiled in a horrid conflict between awe and envy when I look at my more successful peers. Most of my friends are working hard, often for free, finding their place in the world and it's a pleasure to discuss the possibilities for our future and trials of job-hunting. There are other occasions however, when you meet people seemingly so established or at least on such an exciting path that you start to wonder why it isn't you in their place. I have a good degree, some relevant work experience, a profound interest in the arts yet here I am, treading water until someone gives me a break.

Tonight was one of those occasions. For the l
ast couple of months, my friend Tarini has been doing an internship with HRL Contemporary - a curatorial partnership which specialises in promoting young, up and coming artists. Tonight was the opening night of Benjamin Cohen's first solo exhibition held at the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, only the second show put on by HLR. Just another trendy Shoreditch night then. But no. It was not held in another small, damp underground room on some seedy east end alleyway, it was a gigantic, whitewashed, beautifully lit urban space, which got me all excited before I'd even seen the paintings. What made it so impressive though, were the people who brought it together (my very clever friend Tarini the intern included). Henry Little and Josephine Breese only graduated in 2006, they are just a few years older than me and Benjamin is just 23.

The artwork of course, was why I was really there. I'm not new to Benjamin Cohen's work, in fact I'm rather a big fan. As a tentative painter myself, I often scour the internet for inspiration from other artists. A couple of years ago, as I trawled through endless images on the Saatchi website, I came across Benjamin's work. His paintings are hard to miss - they are bold, unnerving and technically brilliant. This exhibition is a documentation of the last three years of his career in which he has experimented with the human form, deconstructing it, reconstructing it and portraying it in very unhuman ways. If his work has any flaw it is that his influences are glaringly obvious but when these are Bacon, Saville and Freud, who really cares? To strip him of his own inventiveness though is unfair. His fleshy bodies, exposed and vulnerable dissolve into the vivid turquoise and blue backgrounds, not softly melting away but abruptly disappearing in pixelated chunks.

So when I was eventually dragged away from the show a couple of hours later, I started to reflect on all that I had seen. When I say reflect, I mean agonise. If only I could paint like Benjamin, if only I was the one putting on this incredible exhibition... But I guess that is what comes with the post-uni angst. I am only 23, I'm hardly over the hill, there is still plenty of time to do similar things. I have been inspired by these people and I've seen some incredible artwork to top it off. Go and see this exhibition, it might just get you thinking too.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Raphael: cartoons and tapestries reunited

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes

While Pope Benedict arrived in the UK amidst a swell of protest, the tapestries he brought with him from the Vatican arrived to universal excitement. For the first time in almost 500 years, Raphael's cartoons depicting episodes from the lives of St Paul and St Peter have been reunited with their woven counterparts.

The cartoons were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 as designs for a set of monumental tapestries to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Between 1516 and 1521, they were transposed into tapestry at the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels, the nerve centre of tapestry production in Europe. After completion, the tapestries immediately took up their place in the Sistine Chapel. The history of the original cartoons however, is rather more varied. To begin with, the designs continued to be used by various tapestry makers in Brussels until they ended up in Genoa in 1623, where they were purchased on behalf of King Charles I. Since then, they have remained in the Royal Collection and now reside at the V & A, having been lent by Queen Victoria in 1865.

Only four of the ten tapestries have come from the Vatican, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Christ's Charge to Peter, The Healing of the Lame Man and The Sacrifice at Lystra, but it is undeniable that on entering the Raphael room at the V & A, the scale, grandeur and pure genius of the cartoons and tapestries alike is overwhelming. In each cartoon, Raphael combines a host of visual techniques to drive forward the meaning of the scene - the composition, gestures, colours are all interwoven to create the most dramatic effect. Raphael is telling a story and we understand every word.

But these paintings are designs, they do not represent Raphael as we know him. They lack the sense of depth we see in his oil-painted works, they are shallow and linear like stone reliefs. It is when we see them in conjunction with the tapestries that we truly appreciate the artist's vision. Interwoven with gold and silver threads, the colours of the tapestries are instantly lifted to shimmering heights, impossible to create in paint. Even now, their luminosity is astounding, no doubt a result of the rarity of their display.

It is likely that Raphael never saw the cartoons and tapestries together, so take the opportunity to marvel at the reunion. It's been 500 years coming.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Backstage at London Fashion Week

Last Friday I worked backstage at the Caroline Charles show at London Fashion Week as a dresser which means exactly that. I dressed models. Fast. To begin with I was extremely excited by the glamour of it all. Unlike all those style bloggers hanging around Somerset house,I was a lucky one, dressed in black and clutching a backstage pass. The prospect of being amongst fellow 5'11ers was also an appealing prospect. That was until I got back stage and saw what they looked like. There's no denying it, these models were knockout good looking. As I got to grips with my dwindling self esteem, I began to witness the explosive rush of creativity in this little room. Backstage at a fashion show is not just a case of shoving clothes on gazelle-like creatures, people are constructing gravity-defying hairstyles and applying make-up to perfection, they are styling, adjusting and studying their creations in a whirlwind of silk and sequinned pageantry.

Although Caroline Charles may not be on my top 10 list of designers I'd most like to wear (she caters for a more mature clientele) I have to admit, I really admired her focused attention to detail amongst the rush backstage with photographers and journalists clamouring for interviews. Before the show began, each model tried on her three different outfits for th e lowly dressers to practice the fine arts of zipping and tying, and for Caroline and her assistants to make the odd adjustment - vintage sunglasses here, a wide brimmed hat there. By the time the show began, each outfit had been carefully tweeked to create a luxurious and ladylike, candy-coloured nod to the 50s.

Witnessing fashion from behind the scenes was a fascinating experience. I defy anyone who says that fashion is a frivolous waste of time, these designers are curators, curators of spectacles worthy of all the cyber-analysis our there.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

An important message about the arts

The other day, my sister showed me this video by David Shrigley called 'An important message about the arts'. This short animation is the cartoonist's protest about the proposed 25% cuts to art institutions in the UK. Over 100 other artists including Damien Hirst (whose work 'A Thousand Years' is featured in the video - the one with the rotting pig's head swarming with flies and maggots), David Hockney, Anthony Caro, Howard Hodgkin, Anish Kapoor and Tracy Emin (who makes a brief appearance as a fire fighter) have joined 'a national consortium of over 2,000 arts organisations and artists dedicated to working together and finding new ways to support the arts in the UK'. Known as the Save the Arts campaign, its aim is to generate a lengthy petition to send to the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, which will show just how important the arts are to Britain and how damaging a reduction in funding will be to our culture, society and economy. If we're trying to drag ourselves out of the pit of recession surely taking money out of the very institutions that can bring more in is profoundly counterproductive? As Strigley explains, art institutions will tighten their belts (we all understand the importance of emergency services and education) but 25% cuts 'will strike a massive hammer blow' to Britain's cultural economy which in the long term will lead to greater unemployment and a reduction in financial gains from tourism. Aside from the benefits to our economy, art institutions entertain us, excite and educate us and they provide a refuge, an often free refuge from a world which hangs beneath a cloud of restraint and moderation.

Shrigley's video is the first of a string of works by leading artists to raise awareness about the campaign and if the rest are anything like this one, I can't wait. 'It's bloody brilliant, that's what it is son'.

Check out their blog and sign their petition at