Showing in London

Yesterday I had around three hours spare in London in the afternoon, and decided to visit some of the exhibitions that I’d been meaning to take a look at, including some photography shows.

As I was in Bloomsbury, I started with ‘Cartographies of Life and Death‘,  a show  marking the bicentenary of John Snow (1813–1858) whose careful research into cholera outbreaks in London in the 1850s showed that cholera was spread by polluted water. His work making use of careful mapping of the places where the deaths occured initiated a new science of epidemiology. It was an interesting show, with some well chosen documents both from the time of Snow’s ground-breaking study – particularly a  and later disease mapping, but I found almost all of the contemporary artworks that had been specially commissioned for it disappointing in the extreme. It certainly was a show that would have been enlivened by some photography from the nineteenth century along with the rather dryer texts (though there was an amusing ballad pouring scorn on the cholera industry) and perhaps even a rather more appropraite contemporary photographic commission.

From there I walked to Soho, where the Photographers’ Gallery is just a little to the north of the site of the Broad Street pump which was the source of the outbreak. I’d decided against attending the opening of the current series of shows there on the grounds that it would only enrage me, but had decided to go in and check it – and they are on until April 7 2013. It’s best to take the lift up to the fifth floor and work your way down as there are far too many stairs in the building. By far the most interesting part of the exhibition on top floor, Perspectives on Collage, was the view out of the large window north across Oxford St into Great Titchfield St, and even that I couldn’t be bothered to photograph. There were a few mildly interesting collages both in C.K. Rajan’s Mild Terrors (1992-96) and the work of Roy Arden, and a little that was at least thought-provoking in the work of Jan Svoboda (there are at least two photographers of that name – this was the Czech artist ((1934–1990) who sought “who sought to redefine the language of photography in relation to painting and sculpture“. I remember seeing a show of his work many years ago – perhaps even at the Photographers’ Gallery – and taking a copy of a small book of  his work being given out free at the gallery. There were large piles of them because almost everyone who picked up a copy took a quick look and  put it back as not worth the price. Certainly most photographers who saw the show appeared to feel that Svoboda should have torn up his ‘The Table‘ but few if any would have suggested he should then have put the pieces on show. To be fair I thought them more interesting than most of the contemporary works. I don’t know how representative a show of collage this is, and it may reflect a dearth of work in this area.

On the floor below I found myself in a large empty space with around a dozen large empty still live images, Ill Form and Void Full, the work of Laura Letinsky.  Mostly the large prints were empty of objects, with  assemblages of objects in just a small area of the frame. The prints didn’t look particularly photographic, and when I put on my glasses they didn’t look particularly sharp, even from a fairly normal viewing distance, which I found annoying. I know I’m fussier than others in this respect, but if a large print looks unsharp I just feel it has been printed too large. Better to have made these perhaps A3. They are described as being taken with a ‘large format camera’ and frankly I’d expect more technically, although possibly the lack of absolute clarity is to enable the blending of real objects and photographs in the images.

I think her work looks better on my screen at home that it did on the wall, although perhaps rather despite myself there was an image of a simple white cup on a white table with a white wall (the image next to the text panel if you can brave the sea-sickness of the panoramic view of the exhibition, though you can’t see it well enough to appreciate it) which was a picture very much about light and illusion that intrigued me.

The lowest of the three exhibition floors was devoted to the work of Brazilian artist  Geraldo de Barros (1923-1998)  and despite some reservations it was perhaps the work on show that interested me most, though more for his early work in a modernist vogue than the collages of his final years when he returned to working with photographs, having abandoned any serious photography over 45 years before. You can read more about him, and some comments on the other shows in a Guardian piece by Sean O’Hagan.

By far the most worthwhile of the shows I saw was at the Courtauld Gallery, where  Becoming Picasso has two rooms of his work from 1901, the first containing paintings made for his Paris debut exhibition and the second the start of his Blue period, perhaps inspired – as two of the works on show clearly are – by the death of a close friend. I don’t go much for large collected blockbuster shows, but this isn’t that but a closely focused exhibition that brings together work for a specific theme. You can’t really fully appreciate these paintings on line (or in reproduction) but really have to go and stand in front of them and look at them closely as well as from a distance. Most of these images have a three-dimensional aspect to their brushwork that is important. The show runs until 26 May 2013.

Going back to photography was perhaps bound to be something of an anti-climax, but also at Somerset House, in the East Wing Gallery, is Landmark: the Fields of Photography, a landscape show curated by William A. Ewing (until 28 April 2013.) It’s a vast show, full of huge images – along with some smaller ones – in a confusing rambling series of rooms, and you really need the map supplied to ensure you see it all.

The text says it contains ‘more than 130 original works of art’ and my guess would have been that there were around twice that number of photographs, but that’s perhaps just how it felt. Although there is much interesting work on show, I think a much smaller show would have been preferable. There was too much on the wall that made me feel I’d seen pictures like that so many times before or at times to ask, ‘but is is really landscape.’ It’s like one of those big thick bricks of books of photographs (and Ewing has of course produced some) and I felt the curator needed a strict curator to keep him in check. It seems driven by an unbridled enthusiasm, a child let loose in a sweetshop with an unlimited budget.

There are too many vacuous large works – some by well-known names. Too many pictures that seem nice pages for coffee table books or colour supplements. But still much work that I liked. If you have an interest in landscape there will probably be much that interests you – just be prepared to walk through a lot of long grass too find it.

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