An exhibition opening this October at Flowers Gallery in London looks at the profound challenges facing girls and women affected by war. Organised by War Child UK and curated by intersectional feminist art collective InFems to coincide with the UN International Day of the Girl Child, the ‘Lost Girls’ message is about empowering women in war by focusing on survival rather than victimhood. It marks 30 years since War Child and Flowers Gallery showed their celebrated charity exhibition ‘Little Pieces from Big Stars’.
All the artists represented in the show have put women and girls at the centre of their practice. They include artists and activists Ai Weiwei, Owanto, Tewodros Hagos and Tracey Moffatt, radical British-born American feminist Penelope Slinger, the art-punk pioneer Linder, and Caroline Coon, a counterculture hero since the 1960s.
What happens to art and the artist when their work is exhibited outside a traditional gallery space? And do unusual venues and experimental curations set culture free to be explored and experienced in new and exciting ways, and by a public way beyond the original borders? What are the limits and the possibilities?
I put this to Neil Wenman, partner and global creative director at Hauser & Wirth, the leading commercial gallery which has been exploring unusual spaces to present art since opening the Somerset gallery on an old farm in 2014.
At the entrance to “Tomás Saraceno in Collaboration: Web[s] of Life,” we are politely asked to surrender our phones. There is no apparent judgment; instead, the act is more performative as our gadgets are safely slotted in what appears like an old wooden shelving unit and exchanged with an oracle card, “Arachnomancy Card,” with a personalized message (mine read: “planetary drift”). We are free, of course, to choose not to give away our phones. Yet it seems a missed opportunity: to truly immerse in the lively and layered world created by Tomás Saraceno for London’s Serpentine Galleries requires this small sacrifice.
Later, I reflect on what a relief it was not to reach out for my iPhone at every photo opportunity (and there are plenty), to be in the moment and absorb the chapters that unfold in each room and onto the surrounding Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. As Saraceno’s first major exhibition in the UK, “Web[s] of Life” takes on a lot. Ultimately it aims to observe how different life forms, technologies and energy systems are connected in the climate emergency. Art, for Saraceno, has active agency.
Last Friday I visited Yorkshire Sculpture Park to meet with the American artist Leonardo Drew as he unveiled his latest commission, Number 360 for the YSP’s eighteenth-century Chapel (on until October 2023).
In his abstract work Drew avoids working with found material, instead treating objects to appear found, and with the material almost acting as instruments making symphonies, in the case of Number 360 creating tension and turbulence but also this lovely sense of peace. It really looks special in the meditative Chapel and surrounded by early spring park life.
Drew’s work carries weight and meaning, yet he purposely numbers his work, instead of naming, so to encourage the viewer to make up their own mind, for the artwork to become a mirror, and for it to continually evolve with each interaction.
There’s a lovely sense of freedom to this. Of letting go.
Our conversation went from the process of art making, to the meaning of art, politics, religion and what it means to be human.
Alice Neel, activist, feminist, humanist, warm and passionately non-conformist, is one of the leading painters of our time. Working predominantly in New York, where she lived most of her life, and in the intimate surroundings of her home rather than a studio, from the start of her long career Neel was drawn to raw moments of intimacy, painting neighbours, artists, activists, labour leaders, Black intellectuals, queer couples — often painting those excluded from portraiture. “I’m a collector of souls,” she wrote. “I paint my time using the people as evidence.”
‘Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle’ at the Barbican gallery captures the spirit of this remarkable painter of the 20th century who, despite her figurative work being so unfashionable, refused to conform to the art movements of her time.
And she was a gifted portraitist; her gaze penetrates deep inside each of her subjects, all of whom are treated with respect, compassion, humour and equal attention, be it her fellow artist Andy Warhol caught at his most vulnerable (1970), the youthful poet and writer John Perreault (1972), head of the US Communist Party Gus Hall (1981), a couple of privileged Wellesley College girls (1967), her neighbour Carmen and child (1972), or indeed herself, painted in 1980 at a ripe age of 80.
As a side note, it’s interesting to compare Neel’s self-portrait with Lucian Freud’s ‘Painter Working, Reflections’ (1993), also his only full-figure naked self-portrait, painted as the artist turned 70. Whereas Neel reveals a touch of vulnerability in her pose, seated in an armchair, paintbrush in hand, cheeks flushed, Freud stands arrogant, full of ego, tough – yet both artist appear triumphant.
The Barbican’s gorgeous exhibition, with its warm colours and textures, offers an intimate encounter with the artist. Neel’s work is as fresh and relevant and powerful today as it was then. And, as the exhibition catalogue nicely points out, it speaks of our concerns and struggles, who is represented and why, highlighting the political nature of how we look at others, and what it is to feel seen.
‘Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle’ is at the Barbican gallery in London until May 21, 2023.