Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959-2009

This week I had my first private view experience at the Serpentine Gallery, for the opening of the Gustav Metzger retrospective exhibition Decades 1959-2009. I was a bit disappointed not to spot any celebrity gallery-goers (my private view partner-in-crime Lisa tells me she spotted Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney at the last Serpentine opening) but enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere – al fresco drinks in the pavilion, and lots of impressive designer footwear on display – and of course, checking out the work itself!

Manchester folks may well remember Metzger as the artist responsible for Flailing Trees, the public artwork installed in the Manchester Peace Gardens during this year’s Manchester International Festival, which I blogged about very briefly back here, and have subsequently been acquired by the Whitworth Art Gallery. Metzger’s “inverted trees” prompted a mixed response from festival-goers: whilst some people loved them, others were notably underwhelmed.

The upside down trees are back in this show, alongside a whole range of other works, charting the development of Metzger’s distinctive “auto-destructive” practice: stacks of newspapers are exhibited alongside a smashed-up car wreck, whilst German racial laws on Jews from the 1930s and 1940s are displayed on a bright yellow wall. There is a film of Metzger creating auto-destructive art in the 1960s by hurling acid at a wall, and an interactive work in which gallery visitors are invited to crawl underneath an enormous green sheet where they will encounter enlarged photographs of Jews on the streets of Vienna in 1938. Throughout the exhibition, Metzger’s works remain highly politicised, touching on everything from nuclear weapons to climate change, forcefully exposing and documenting the excesses of consumerism, the destructive forces of capitalism, and the violence of 20th century history.

Yet whilst there’s no doubt that Metzger’s work is very potent, dealing with challenging and powerful ideas, ultimately I have to admit that like Flailing Trees, much of this exhibition left me mysteriously feeling a little cold. Even the most highly charged pieces in the show failed to provoke an emotive response. I'm not sure what it says about me and my attitude to art, but my favourite piece was in fact the least overtly political in the whole show – the Liquid Crystal Environment light projection, a darkened space where gently swirling colours and slowly mutating patterns were projected on the walls.

But regardless of my personal, intuitive response to these works, ultimately I would have to agree with Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian, who sums up Metzger’s work much better than I can: “at once playful and aggressive, plainly sincere and powerfully, brutally direct.”

Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959-2009 is showing at The Serpentine until 8 November.

[Image: Gustav Metzger's Liquid Crystal Environment commissioned for Tate Liverpool, via The Serpentine website]

Words and Pictures

I’ve always been unsure about whether it’s a good idea to write here about work-related matters. However, I just can’t resist saying a little something about the great event I was involved with organising at the Free Word Centre earlier this week.

Free Word is London’s new international centre for literature, literacy and freedom of expression. To celebrate the launch of this exciting new venue, Free Word is currently playing host to the first ever Free Word Festival, with events being organised by all the founder organisations - Apples and Snakes, Article 19, Booktrust, English PEN, Index on Censorship, The Arvon Foundation, The Literary Consultancy and The Reading Agency.

Words and Pictures was Booktrust’s contribution to the festival, bringing Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne, together with fellow award-winning illustrators Emily Gravett and Catherine Rayner to take part in a discussion about the value of picture books. These are three fantastic illustrators, with very different styles and approaches, and it was fascinating to hear them talking about their attitudes to making picture books.

Children's Laureate Anthony Browne has published over 40 books, and won numerous awards including the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Prize. His celebrated illustrations are strongly influenced by fine art and surrealism in particular. His characters (often his trademark gorillas or chimpanzees) inhabit a finely-detailed world, where visual clues help to convey a hidden meaning or to tell a story that may be only hinted at in the text. My favourite amongst his books is undoubtedly Gorilla, which I have vivid memories of reading as a child.

Anthony Browne, Voices in the Park, published by Random House

Emily Gravett's first book Wolves was published to much acclaim in 2005, winning several awards including the Kate Greenaway Medal. Her subsequent picture books have featured a menagerie of lovely animal characters, all drawn in her distinctive illustrative style, which often incorporates collage techniques. She is especially interested in books as objects that children can engage and interact with - I love her anarchic approach in both Wolves and also her newest book The Rabbit Problem.

Emily Gravett, Wolves, published by Macmillan

Catherine Rayner won this year's Kate Greenaway Medal with her book Harris Finds His Feet. Her beautiful, painterly illustrations of animals have won comparisons with one of my favourite ever children's book illustrators, Brian Wildsmith. I'm intrigued by the way she plays with the use of white space in her books, and experiments with design to compose each page in a unique and interesting way - and I especially love her gorgeous use of colour in Augustus and His Smile.

Catherine Rayner, Augustus and His Smile, published by Little Tiger

The thought-provoking and entertaining discussion that ensued, expertly chaired by Sunday Times journalist Nicolette Jones, covered everything from their favourite childhood picture books, to their individual stories of how they became children's book illustrators, to why they all believe picture books to be one of the most important and influential forms of art. Here's a few videos from the event:

The event finished with all three illustrators playing “the shape game” – a fun, collaborative drawing game that Anthony Browne is promoting as part of his laureateship as a way to encourage children (and adults) to draw, invent stories, and be creative.

Works by all three illustrators will be on display in the hall area of the Free Word Centre until the end of September. Find out more about the Free Word Festival and the other events coming up here.

London Fashion Week: Shoe Spotting

So this week was London Fashion Week, and since this is a blog that is (occasionally, ostensibly) about shoes, I thought it would be good to make the most of the moment and post about some shoe-related antics for a change. Here's my little LFW shoe round-up:

For anyone who was utterly baffled by peep-toe ankle boots last season, I'm afraid it looks like a look that's set to stay with us for a little while longer. Check out Julien Macdonald's and Matthew Williamson's futuristic beauties, just for starters. Personally I love them, but I have to admit they might be a tad impractial for a cold February morning. But then whoever said fashion was supposed to make sense?

Julien Macdonald: Matthew Williamson

On the subject of nonsensical, it's all getting very crazy and structural at Burberry Prorsum, Jean Pierre Braganza and Atalanta Weller, shoe designer for House of Holland. Is it a shoe? Is it a modernist sculpture? To be honest, it hardly seems to matter anymore.

Atalanta Weller via stylebubble

I have to admit I'm can't get very enthusiastic about the studded black statement boot which is set to be everywhere this autumn and winter, a la Christopher Kane for Topshop. Yes, they may pack a powerful post-punk punch. But they also look a wee bit sweaty and uncomfortable. I quite like this bold graphic style by Charles Anastase though.

Charles Anastase

Meanwhile Twenty8Twelve and Julien Macdonald demonstrated that the ubiquitous, and to be frank, deeply unflattering gladiator sandal is set to stay on the scene. Boo to shoes which are not designed for those with, shall we say, a less than sylph-like ankle!

Twenty8Twelve: Julien Macdonald

Why not opt for something a little more jaunty and colourful for jumping through spring puddles? Louise Goldin advocated sweet ankle socks in sugar and sherbet shades; Peter Jensen and Christopher Kane showed lemon-yellow lace-up boots; whilst Betty Jackson and Luella opted for nifty bows on the toes.

At Erdem, models strutted down the runway in mismatched floral pumps; Kinder Aggugini ornamented shoes with butterflies and bows of polka dot ribbon; whilst Mulberry offered us a veritable rainbow of ankle-strap sandals and lace-up high heels. Hurrah for pretty shoes this spring!

Kinder Aggugini: Luella: Betty Jackson: Erdem: Louise Goldin

(For more on London Fashion Week from some proper fashion bloggers, check out Style Bubble and Wish Wish Wish)

catching up

I’m back in London again, on a soft and greyish day. It’s really starting to feel like autumn here: walking through Bunhill Fields last week through the first falling leaves, wearing a jacket and boots for the first time, was a picture-perfect autumn moment.

It’s been a very, very hectic couple of weeks. I’ve spent a lot of time on trains, going here, there and everywhere in my work capacity. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Book Festival, as well as various other events and meetings, and have also been organising an exhibition of picture book illustrations and an accompanying event as part of the launch festival for the new Free Word Centre. And this weekend I was in Coventry for a conference of librarians – what a truly glamorous life I lead!

In any spare moments (few and far between) I’ve been trying to fit in my university studies, spending time in the library, and working, very slowly, on my dissertation. Even though getting it done is posing me with something of a challenge at the moment, I'm nonetheless enjoying it. I'm also glad it gives me the perfect excuse to head north on a regular basis, as I’m still studying at Manchester University.

Unfortunately, all this leaves little time for blogging or indeed writing of any kind: I haven’t even managed to write in my faithful diary for months. Interestingly, I’ve noticed this blog is increasingly drifting towards being more of an ‘arts’ type blog than the personal blog it once was. I’m not quite sure why that is, except maybe it's simply easier to write about impersonal things - books, exhibitions - when you are super busy, because there just isn't much time or brainpower left to have many interesting 'personal' thoughts.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to getting the dissertation finished and then I can (at least occasionally) have a life, and a perhaps even a brain, once again.

However, in the meantime there are, nevertheless, some good writing things happening. The most exciting is that I’m going to have some work published in the latest anthology from Litfest’s excellent publishing imprint, Flax. Mostly Truthful is Flax’s first nonfiction prose anthology, and also features work by Kate Feld, Adrian Slatcher and Jane Routh. There will also be a launch event as part of the Litfest programme in October at which we’ll all be (eek) appearing and (even more eek) reading from our work. You can check out the event and maybe even book a ticket to see it, right here.

P.S. follow the yellow brick road also pops up on Kate's Cultureometer over at the excellent Creative Tourist this month. Check it out here.

P.P.S. Look who's joined me down here in London Town - yep, it's my most glamorous blogging compatriot, the fabulous Ms Coco Laverne!

[Image via lavendardays on we heart it]

Keith Tyson: Cloud Choreography

Heading over to Parasol unit for the preview of Keith Tyson’s new show Cloud Choreography and Other Emergent Systems on Tuesday night was a pleasant interlude in an otherwise very long, very busy and rather stressful week.

This was my first visit to Parasol unit, and I enjoyed peeping into the wet garden, complete with green lily pool, and standing in the outdoor marquee listening to the rain drumming on the roof. What’s more, this new exhibition from the winner of the 2002 Turner Prize is itself a particularly enjoyable one, bringing together two different groups of Tyson’s work in an intriguing exploration of the artist’s systems and processes.

The first group of works features pieces that engage with and reflect natural processes and physical forms, ranging from as series of works rendered on large-scale aluminium sheets that have been treated with chemicals, resulting in the creation of beautiful, swirling, multi-coloured patterns, to a new series of works entitled Cloud Choreography representing the abstract shapes of cloud formations.

A second group of works focuses particularly on mathematical and process-driven systems, including sculptures from the Fractal Dice series, and a number of paintings that incorporate bizarre pseudo-scientific equations, in which mathematical formulae are jumbled together with mundane representations of ordinary life, from chairs and buckets to pigeons.

Taken together, these two groups of work reflect Tyson’s ongoing interest in introducing elements of chance, risk and randomness into his artwork, as well as his evident desire to disturb notions of ‘natural’ aesthetic beauty versus the scientific, drawing into question the very nature of the artwork itself. Through his practice, the artist appears to be undertaking an unconventional investigation of the world around him, becoming a kind of ‘mad scientist’ figure who attempts to discover the secrets of the universe through a whole series of fascinating yet utterly baffling processes and experiments. Exuberant and inventive, this quirky exhibition is well worth a look.

[Image: Mathematical Nature Painting: Nested, Keith Tyson, 2008 via Parasol unit]

manchester and lancaster: two new exhibitions

I’ve just returned from some time spent up north, where (amongst many other doings) I had the opportunity to take in a couple of new exhibitions:

Outlet is a new transitory project conceived by exocet, who previously brought us Porch (a temporary gallery space in the porch of a Chorlton house) and startrunning (a series of cross-artform events bringing together visual artists with experimental musicians). This is an independent artist-led space in an empty retail space in the Northern Quarter that will be playing host to “a series of varied exhibitions and spontaneous events.”

I went along to the preview of group show MISCELLANY, which included a wide variety of works by artists including Robert Bailey, Naomi Kashiwagi, Richard Kendrick and David Martin. Pieces ranged from Andrew Bracey’s lighthearted site-specific installation to Richard Shield’s exuberant line drawings. Together with other recent shows like Trade City, exhibitions such as MISCELLANY are indicative of the continued health and growth of Manchester’s artist-led scene.

Meanwhile, up in Lancaster on Friday, I was intrigued to visit the recently re-opened Storey Institute, in its new incarnation as a centre for creative industries. Resident organisations include Lancaster Litfest and of course, The Storey Gallery. The gallery's current exhibition is Strange Days and Some Flowers, a group show of “strange and uneasy work” that, like MISCELLANY, refuses to conform to the curatorial conventions of thematic shows accompanied by traditional gallery interpretation: instead, a playful selection of works are exhibited within a graphic jumble of scaffolding and crates.

This is a show with a very clear sense of humour, from Dan Baldwin’s jaunty rainbow-coloured paintings, memorably described as “Enid Blyton meets the apocalypse” to John Stark’s quirky bee-keepers and an enjoyably bizarre video installation by Mika Rottenberg. The sense of convention-busting childlike exuberance is continued through the availability of an audio tour given, not by the curator, but instead by two children sharing their thoughts on the works.

Personally, I was particularly pleased to see the Victoria and Albert statue is still in place, and especially that the long-established tradition of customising them for each show is continuing. On this occasion the somewhat serious pair had been garlanded with psychadelic flowers and joined by an assortment of multi-coloured companions in perfect accord with the atmosphere of the show.

[Images of Strange Days and Some Flowers via flickr, by beanphoto and Suzy Jones, copyright to the photographers and The Storey Gallery]

reading procrastination

As fellow procrastination expert The Plashing Vole wisely points out in his comment here, there are few better ways to avoid doing the reading you’re supposed to be doing (say for a certain dissertation) than by spending your time reading something else instead.

As part of my procrastinatory activities, I’ve recently been enjoying the first issue of Corridor 8 magazine, Curtis Sittenfeld’s brilliant American Wife, and two new books I’ve recently reviewed for Bookmunch: The Bride’s Farewell, the latest from Meg Rosoff; and Small Wars, Sadie Jones’s follow-up to her phenomenally successful debut The Outcast.

I’ve also been reading a selection of really excellent young adult novels: Judy Blundell’s engrossing What I Saw and How I Lied, a 1950s-set thriller with a hint of Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer; Jenny Valentine’s pleasingly kooky Finding Violet Park; and the completely gripping The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first part of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy. Ness is also currently online writer in residence at Booktrust: his blog and straight-talking tips for writers are well worth checking out. I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous of today’s teenagers: the wealth of excellent young adult writing out there at the moment makes a marked contrast with the dreary selection of Judy Blumes, Point Horrors and Sweet Valley Highs on offer in the teenage section of my local library, back in the darkest 1990s.

In addition, I’ve been browsing a couple of entertaining cookbooks: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays, re-published by the wonderful Persephone Books – a witty 1920s guide to cooking and entertaining, with chapters entitled ‘For the Punctual and the Unpunctual’ and ‘A Motor Excursion Luncheon’ amongst others; and Joanna Weinberg’s distinctly 21st century equivalent, How to Feed Your Friends with Relish, described as "not exactly a cookbook… nor a domestic manual [but] a book about food and friendship and cooking and love." There’s something very pleasing about reading recipes: as Weinberg herself points out in the introduction to her book “they tell stories of happy endings, perfect-length fairytales to read at bedtime.”

And finally, I’ve also been re-visiting a few old favourites to help with a contribution I’ve recently put together for Untitled Books. If you’ve never visited Untitled Books, I urge you to check it out: as well as excellent book reviews, news and features, this literary website and online magazine is currently host to an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, brand new fiction from the likes of Evie Wyld and even a literary lonely hearts column. My contribution will be coming soon…

Basically, in the words of C.S. Lewis, "you can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me"… especially when there’s something else more productive I’m really supposed to be doing. Now, I’m off to put the kettle on… what shall I read next?

[These lovely bookcovers come via the book cover archive, alteration and the always-inspirational daydream lily]

weekend in edinburgh

I’ve just got back from a brief but action packed trip to Edinburgh for the Book Festival. Some quick highlights: watching wide-eyed children play drawing games with Children's Laureate Anthony Browne; eating local Scottish scallops; spotting a little old lady dancing all by herself to funky street music; beautiful views over the city from the top floor of the Chamber Street museum; people-watching, coffee-drinking and bookshop-browsing at the festival site at Charlotte Square Gardens; checking out Greenaway prize-winner Catherine Rayner’s beautiful illustrations (including a giant moose!); Eva Hesse’s delicate cheesecloth and papier mache studio works at The Fruitmarket Gallery; and spotting a super-cool China Mieville hanging out at the Author’s Yurt.

However I have to admit that my favourite moment of the whole weekend was probably watching three Grey seals catching up on a little peaceful sunbathing in Dunbar harbour on Sunday morning.

Now back to London again…