Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Uncategorized Yorkshire

Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield

You could be forgiven for not knowing about Wakefield, but not about giving up on visiting one of the most visually stunning museums inYorkshire, if not the UK, just because it’s about two hours from London by train. That’s almost as much as it takes to cross London during rush hour, and the destination will yield far more surprising and satisfactory results. The gallery was created purposefully to house Barbara Hepworth’s gigantic, spectacular plaster casts, with an architecture opening up the building to the light. At the turn of a nondescript cluster of outlet stores, coming across this serene block moored in the midst of the river is like coming across a strange alien structure fallen out of the sky. It is all the more arresting in this particular context, after a long pilgrimage from the station, with a suitcase and 9 hours of travelling behind me. This is a space which has the rare quality of being as breath-taking on the inside as it is compelling on the inside, its functionality and openness making the works breathe and live within the space with complete effortlessness, far from being a sterile white cube. There is something unique about gazing upon the river below through a Hepworth as evening falls and the light changes. I fell in love at first sight. And as if that were not enough, Hepworth Wakefield then reunited me with a long-lost love – fashion and art curated together.

It’s not that I do not like fashion exhibitions or the complex and fascinating ways in which art history has informed the design, history and evolution of fashion. It’s purposefully because I do care deeply about fashion that I feel dissappointed when art-and-fashion juxtaposed together do not do each other justice. Art inspiring fashion is more than a Mondrian dress, just as fashion inspiring art is more than Jeff Koons’ “Fashion Loves Art” line with H&M (or his more high end collaboration with Vuitton only recently). None of these elements are bad in themselves, but they barely skim the surface of a entire range of possibilities and issues. These are the issues which the designer JW Anderson manages to sum up with a simple premise unfurling into a range of beautiful visual questions: the human body through 20th and 21st century  fashion, design and art. It reads like a love letter to the transformation, sublimation and subversion of bodies, beyond the beautiful or the aesthetic.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield
Installation shot of Disodebient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield. Photo Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

While ambitious, the exhibition never seems to work too hard for anyone’s approval. The prestigious selection has Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas alongside Rei Kawabuko (Comme des Garçons), Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Dior in strange, quiet conversations allowing you to work and question juxtapositions rather than face anything too literal. Design is not left out of the equation either, as Eileen Grey’s chair rests faces Jean Arp’s S’Elevant (Rising Up) sculpture expresses the fluidity and ambiguity of human bodies, and earthenware by Mo Jupp reacts to Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag chair. It’s not always neccessary to search too far for answers sometimes. Henry Moore’s Reclining Nude irreverently leads to an iconic pointy-breasted bodice by Jean-Paul Gaultier. A cluster of Sarah Lucas’ eerie ragdolls draped on chairs is juxtaposed with JW Anderson’s trio of elongated knitwear jumpers (above). Softness and transparency, protective armour and movement form categories whose boundaries blur into each other. The text is limited to a simple booklet to allow the visitor to wander through rooms thinly delimitated by Anderson’s vintage fabrics, structuring the space. I usually take it upon myself to only read the booklet after visiting the exhibition, and it’s refreshing to feel as though the display can work as a free association of ideas around the body, without the explanatory text. Interestingly, the rooms are divided up in themes shown in the booklet like “disrupting classicism” and “casting skin. exposing and protecting” but these are not followed by lengthy room texts, simply regrouping a cluster of works and allowing for an extended labels for each. This was excellent in creating some kind of narrative thread without drowning the reader with heavy-handed thematics. There were a huge amount of creators I did not know and learnt from in the exhibition; the booklet still provides a stable resource for me to lean on. I learn from the same booklet that the architectural conception was meant to evoke “an intimate social gathering in someone’s home”. While I’d be absolutely terrified to discover a Hans Bellmer doll (above) in my home, I appreciate the sentiment. It’s all the more interesting to remove art from its stately pedestal and remove fashion from the runway in a display that craves intimacy rather than glamour. There is only one installation in the exhibition: JW Anderson’s 28 jumpers, creating an odd forest of soft, colourful knitwear to wander through.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield 7
Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

Maybe the influx of names can sound a bit intimidating, but that feeling is quickly overtaken by curiosity. In a display of the unpredictable, inhibitions are dropped in favour of discovery. Rather than name-dropping, the exhibition allows us to encounter new names and see familiar works in a new light, like old friends talking about a seldom-talked aspect of themselves. This quote while encountering the fabric and steel work Untitled (1998) by Louise Bourgeois stood out for me:

“Clothes are about what you want to hide. Garments can hold memories and they become specific to a certain time and emotional connection.”  

This exhibition is the first that made me think sincerely about the idea of motion and stillness in looking at clothing – the sense that these are shells waiting for life to be breathed into them by the wearers, for a performance and attitude, and that every choice in tailoring and textile will modify and inform the body it covers. The desire to touch was strong, in order to grasp the power of textile to transform and enhance this sense of motion and create a particular vision of the body.  It was the first time that I stopped seeing fashion items in an exhibition as “exhibits”, and started seeing them as living, breathing entities, interacting with the world around them. In short, I started seeing them as works of art outside of the gallery space, meant to interact in motion. Motion is also at the forefront of Anderson’s concerns in portraying the human body within the exhibition, since a powerful range of videos complete the display and infuse it with particular purpose. Merce Cunningham’s Scenario from 1997 (below), shows the immense influence of the choreographer on modern art as well as fashion (his work was also shown in the recent Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, as the two men collaborated extensively in terms of staging, clothing and set design).

It would have been interesting to see some of the fashion display items in motion via videos for instance. However, this would have made it a historical fashion exhibition, which was neither the case nor the intention. The exhibition did not neccessarily feel like a fashion history or an art history lesson, nor a design one…and that’s a good thing. Too much encompassed within the intimate space, and too much context weighing down on powerful objects would have overkill. This also has the added purposes of letting contemporary art, design and fashion dialogue peacefully, neither overpowing the other.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield 2.jpg
Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

More than an art-and-fashion exhibition, this is an exhibition with a sincere and powerful message in allowing for us to experience powerful and experimental interpretations of the human body. More than a learning experience it is a unique journey into being aware of the power of object and design to extend our own bodies and reflect them. Like Anderson’s interlocking jumpers, it draws connections in ways you would expect the least, tweaking and subverting expectations. I do feel that in more ways than one this exhibition did change a certain awareness I had about my own body and my relation to it, in its presence, transformation and absence. Being able to create this awareness and experience is the sign of an exhibition which will stay with you for a long time. After a long, physically demanding pilgrimage to a museum as unpredictable as it is beautiful, this experience seemed more than fitting.

Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield is on till 18th June. Free entry 

Also in Wakefield, The Art House provides an excellent visit, with opportunities to discover emerging artists’ practices, and a Migration residency initiative on at the moment seeking to explore issues related to the refugee crisis. This coincides with Juan DelGado’s installation Altered Landscapes. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is also not that far away via a bus or a car if you want to encounter a beautiful open-air gallery to experience sculpture outdoors, as well as discover the current Tony Cragg exhibition.  More culture and contemporary art in Yorkshire.


Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Study from the Human Body at Stephen Friedman Gallery

This new exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery aims, in its own terms, to pay homage both to Henry Moore and Francis Bacon and their own ‘Study of the Human Body’. This could appear as an aim that is both ambitious and likely to create a very scattered effect – between sculptural and painterly, the transformed body and the body performing in a particular space. In a sense that is quite true of the exhibition in general, which chooses to focus on all mediums and remains open to all kinds of interpretations of what this “human body” may look like. The result is an eclectic mix of different mediums and aspects from a vast array of artists. And does the exhibition pull it off? Well, my views are a bit mixed.

The first part of the exhibition plunged us straight into a life drawing class of a particular kind…notably, David Shrigley’s Turner Prize-winning Life Drawing. Particular because in this case our model was a large cartoonish naked sculpture residing in the center of the room. Maintaining a pose was therefore not a problem for our “model”…aside from the occaisional blinking and ‘urinating’ in a bucket befors its pedestal. Surrounding it were easels, all the material and paper neccessary in order to get down to drawing, and the audience becoming momentarily artists for an instant as they put their own particular viewpoint on the paper…then on the wall, which already showed previous participations. These were extremely spontaneous and diverse – the pressure lifted on representing a caricature of the body rather than a ‘real’ body, people felt more free to experiment with different genres and styles. More than in any ‘real’ life drawing I have ever attended in any case. This was only encouraged by the helpful and friendly assistants present during the evening itself.

Life Model, David Shrigley, 2014.
Past contributions…
…and mine!

Exploration, the grostesque and the body transformed; the tone is set in a participative, dynamic humorous way for the rest of the exhibition that shows different, varied representations of the human body. I loved the Moore sculpture and their relation to Paul Mc Devitt’s Notes to Self sketches, exploring the transitions anf between the drawing and the three-dimensional, form and substance. They complemented each other beautifully and probably were the best testimony to these links with Moore and Bacon that the exhibition wished to acheive.

Henry Moore
Paul Mc Devitt, Notes to Self, 2010-2014
Yinka Shonibare, MBE Fire, 2010

The second part of the exhibition is quieter than the hubbub created by Shrigley but interesting, showcasing many different artists of the gallery and their mediums…but attempting to unite them all under not only one theme of the human body but specifically the human body according to Moore and Bacon is perhaps too much of a stretch, an attempt to create a strenuous link between objects that do not neccessarily have any need for this extra layer of interpretation. Trying to reattach works amongst themselves with something as universal as the human body and then made to fit into perceptions of two very different artists and their own different views does not work out well, in my opinion.

Huma Bhabha, Chain of Missing Links, 2012

I did enjoy the works that I saw however, with their diversity of materials and medium. Maybe that is the point, ultimately: they did not neccessarily need the link to Bacon and Moore to create questions and tensions among themselves. Where does the body start and where does it end? A silhouette made psychedelic like Yinka Shonibare’s MBE Fire sculpture challenges Being, by Tom Friedman, made entirely of styrofoam balls and paint roughly aggregated into a colossal silhouette like a combination of atoms forming a body.

Huma Bhabha’s Chain of Missing Links furthermore questions this with a ‘body’ or its grostesque likeness constituted of materialistic, physical but artificial elements like styrofoam, clay or plexiglass. Do these works challenge the organic nature of the human body or emphasize it? Kendell Geers’s Flesh of the Spirit seems to embody this through its very title, while criticizing the attitudes of Western art towards African sculpture. The human body becomes a performance, in the two large works by Catherine Opie, Divinity Fudge and Vaginal Davis, where gender and clothing become a way of transfiguring her subjects. The kitschy but striking Death of Chatterton by Kehinde Wiley, reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelite theme by Henry Wallis, contrasted with Julien, the caricatural but sensitive portrait by Yoshitomo Nara.

Kehinde Wiley, Death of Chatterton

And after facing the fleshy, intense smudges of paint of Bacon’s Study of the Human Body, we confront the human body in its absence of physical presence, through Shadow. The concentration around a figurative, physical representation of our bodies and what they represent, revolving around sculpture, painting and photography as well as two prominent artists, made this exhibition lack some overall coherence. However, this did not detract me from the works themselves, and the installation by Shrigley instilled a feeling of interaction and experimentation throughout the entire exhibition.