The White Cube gallery in Bermondsey has created controversy with the exhibition of Gilbert and George’s “The Banners” which are exactly, as titled, banners and have to be taken as such, relating back to an event in the Serpentine Gallery in 2014 where the artists held up banners with controversial sayings in front of the audience for just over 4 minutes and where they probably worked better than just being hung in a gallery.
The ways in which modern and contemporary artists use new and different ways to depict figures and images is a theme of several current exhibitions including at the Pompidou Centre Malaga, Charlie Smith London and here at the White Cube, moving on beyond the banners where the exhibition “Tightrope Walk: Painted Images after Abstraction” curated by Barry Schwabsky explores how modern and contemporary artists over the last century have used abstraction rather than realism to create something new and different.
The title of the White Cube exhibition comes from Francis Bacon’s description of his art as “a tightrope walk between what is called figurative art and abstraction”. The exhibition shows work by over 40 artists starting with Henry Matisse’s “Laurette au chale vert” (1917), Francis Picabia’s “Halia” (1929) and Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude descending a Staircase” (1937) through Pablo Picasso, Patrick Caulfield, George Baselitz, Francis Bacon and their contemporaries to recent work such as Apostolos Georgio untitled work (2015) and Sanya Kantarovsky’s “No Down, No Feather” (2015) to Ellen Altfest’s bold graphic “Abdomen” (2014-5) and Tracy Emin’s swirling lines in “I Think of You All the Time” (2015). Lines, colours and shapes are used in abstract ways to take apart real images and reassemble them, often leaving much to the imagination of the viewer, the most abstract perhaps being Gary Hume’s “Yellow Nude 4” (2014) where the form of the nude has been stripped down to a simple coloured shape on a contrasting background.
Across London in Charlie Smith London’s gallery in Old Street, three contemporary artists also depict the human figure in different ways. Jelena Bulajic’s drawings show the beauty of aging with the lines and abstract patterns that develop with ageing. On first glance, the images look almost photographically realistic, but closer examination shows folds in the skin that are as deep and complex as the folds of mountain ranges, while Claire Partington integrates historic and contemporary references into her ceramics. Why has Venus, the goddess of beauty become a sinister punk with four arms and a two-headed dog for protection and why is an elegant lady who might have graced the court of Henry VIII carrying an instrument of torture? Closer inspection of her richly embroidered dress shows that all is not as it should be. Figures are contradictory: why is a lady praying on one side; while on the other it is a skeleton who takes the pose?
Dominating the gallery space is Dale Lewis’ “Fruits de Mer” showing his observation of street life in London, almost a modern version of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” painted 500 years ago. Perhaps Bosch was one of the first abstract painters?
In both exhibitions, artists add new meaning to their works using abstraction in a way that often needs the viewer to become immersed in the work, investigating and following the lines, the colours, the patterns, the shapes and the contradictions to come to his or her own conclusion about what the artist is saying.