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.
“I never try to create real spaces – only painted spaces. That’s all I am interested in. That may be why there is never really any specific time or place in my painting.” The quote is by Peter Doig, one of today’s most exciting painters.
And it perfectly encapsulates the work of an artist who refuses to be settled within the constraints of time, a particular place, and the framework of art history with its movements and fleeting trends. His is the art of storytelling – a continuous, lively, lyrical and at times witty dialogue between the real and the imaginary. It is a colourful painterly layered journey in time and place.
A major new exhibition perfectly captures the spirit of the Scottish artist. “Peter Doig” at The Courtauld Gallery in London presents an exciting new chapter in his career with 12 paintings and 19 works on paper, including a selection of significant canvases created since the artist moved back from Trinidad to London in 2021.
Voices is a new publication dedicated to the world of wine, and I’ve been involved in helping form its editorial direction on behalf of Spinach Branding. Our client is Maze Row, a new brand in the fine wine scene. They represent a select group of artisan producers who craft wines that are made with passion, respect the environment and speak of a time and place.
As a print publication and digital platform, Voices fosters their work and shares their stories. We see it as a place, a space, for storytelling that involves the wider world of wine, one that includes arts and ideas, culture, design, travel.
And it’s been an extremely exciting adventure, rewarding in both subject matter and the people – winemakers, chefs, creatives, writers, photographers, artists, adventurers – encountered along this colourful journey.
What I’ve come to realise is that wine is a symbol of so much more than just a drink. Away from the supermarket sold soul-less produce, fine wine is a celebration of life, of this beautiful planet. It is a distillation of what it means to be human.
And at the core of our concept is to actively encourage diverse storytelling, multiple viewpoints. After all, inviting different voices is to be not only inclusive but also expansive and enriching. Maybe even change the direction of our gaze.
The Maze Row guiding philosophy is: In wine, we find life. It’s a lovely term coined in collaboration with Spinach Branding which defines everything we do with Voices. Ultimately, we’re looking at the world through the lens of wine.
‘I’m interested in space and the movement of people and objects within space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are inventing an order of things. I believe there is a secret relationship between space, objects and perceptible and imperceptible movements. Every artist working in this field tries to interpret that relationship in his or her own way. It is the composition and balance of those elements that give rise to the essence of drama and – why not? – the essence of life itself.’ These are the words of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists of the last century.
Known today mostly for his much-copied 1944 Coffee Table (an early edition of which sits here before me) and Akari paper lights, Noguchi tirelessly pushed the boundaries of art and sculpture. Working across almost seven decades and with a multitude of materials and mediums, his carved stones, stage sets, paper lanterns, portrait busts, mobiles, and playgrounds were collectively designed to be tools for understanding our place in the cosmos, and our relationships to history, nature, and one another.
The Barbican gallery in London is hosting ‘Noguchi’, the first of a touring European exhibition which sets out to document the work of this visionary creative. Thematically organised and curated to feature only the words of the artist himself, the exhibition successfully immerses the viewer in the mind and the world of Noguchi. The stripped back béton brut halls of the brutalist Barbican and the advantage of the two levels, allow the 150 works to breathe freely, and with the absence of excessive curation, the viewer is left in an almost meditative state to observe and absorb.
Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi’s mother was an Irish American writer and his father a Japanese poet who had abandoned the family on his birth. At the age of two, his mother took him to Japan to reunite with his father, sending him back to the US and onto Indiana for schooling for fear that the biracial child would receive racism in Japan. Noguchi eventually settled in New York where he trained in traditional sculpture, but his real break came while on an internship at the Paris studio of Constantin Brancusi. Here Noguchi gained a seminal introduction to the modernist principles of abstraction and presumably met the international avant-garde who were gathered in Paris in the 1920s. It was thanks to Brancusi that he became passionate about materials and craft – elements that remained fundamental to his work throughout his career.
By the end of the decade Noguchi was back in New York sculpting portrait busts, mainly to make a living, many of which are on display at the Barbican. They are a curious mix of expressionist and whimsical. He later referred to them jokingly as ‘headbusting’ since it was a useful way to make money and meet people. It seemed to have worked as they attracted the attention of the pioneering choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham for whom Noguchi went on to design sets using an interplay of his sculptures. He also befriended the architect and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller, who he referred to as the ‘messiah of ideas’. The two shared a vision for shaping a more equitable world through technology, innovation and design, collaborated on several projects including a futuristic car.
By the 1940s, Noguchi was working with manufacturers Knoll and Herman Miller. He continued to explore the possibilities of material and form with his interlocking marble slab sculptures and Lunars lights, created after his devastating experience of ‘voluntary’ internment at a camp for Japanese Americans in Poston, Arizona in 1942. The Lunars went on to influence some of his best-known works, the sculptural and ethereal Akari light sculptures – a contemporary take on traditional chochin paper lanterns using washi paper and electric bulbs. After the war, Noguchi travelled to Europe and Asia to understand the different uses of sculpture in a spatial and cosmic sense. He wrote at the time, ‘I find myself a wanderer in a world rapidly growing smaller. Artist, American citizen, world citizen, belonging anywhere but nowhere.’
Noguchi went on to complete over twenty public works around the world – gardens, fountains, playgrounds, plazas – using space to challenge civic and social life and its intersections with nature and time. His final contribution was Moerenuma Park. Located on a reclaimed municipal dump outside of Sapporo in Japan, it included play sculptures, fields, and fountains, and a revised version of his first-ever play rejected concept, the monumental, stepped pyramid he called Play Mountain (1933). Moerenuma Park was realised two years after Noguchi’s death in 2000.
Ultimately his was a life dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. With a deeply humanist perspective, heightened by his prison experience, Noguchi understood the power of art and artists to make sense of the world. His work was political art. Wandering the exhibition, immersed from above and below in his delicate paper lanterns, colourful furniture, architectural playgrounds, and expressive and often funny abstract and figurative sculptures, you get the sense that in life and work, Noguchi remained an explorer with a philosophical and playful eye. In his own words: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’