Ah, the trials and rewards of setting contemporary projects within the comfortably shabby halls of olde London. Most recent in this regard (joining projects like the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge over the Thames) is the Great Court at the British Museum (BM), redeveloped by Sir Norman Foster and Partners.
By most accounts, the new glass-domed, arched roof that Foster has constructed over the court and the round Reading Room at its center is an architectural masterpiece. The dark stuffiness of the museum is now counterbalanced with a light, open central space. The museum already boasts almost 6,000,000 visitors a year, a number bound to be increased by the Great Court's extended hours and ambitious programs.
The first exhibition in the new gallery there is "Human Image," an interdepartmental, ethnographic show that mixes representations of man from the British Museum collection. The striking similarities between, say, busts from Yemen or Rome and work by the contemporary artist Elisabeth Frink are made all the more so by the unusual curatorial strategy of explanatory wall texts, forcing the viewer to look at the work au naturel, so to speak.
As with all grand projects, there have been ... a few problems. In the case of the BM, the new South Portico facade has been faced with French rather than Portland limestone, creating a surface brazenly brighter than its surround. The Council of Camden, the borough where BM stands, may decide to demolish and rebuild the portico, although such a costly move seems absurd.
Meanwhile, the Foster team has been hired to renovate the new quarters of the Anthony d'Offay Gallery, located in the same courtyard as Phillips, and formerly a furniture and decorative arts showroom for the auctioneers. As a way of introducing people to the location, the gallery has been using the current space to great effect. Their first exhibition was a show of Maoist-inspired paintings by Anselm Kiefer.
The artist has inscribed the title of the exhibition, "Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom," on many of the paintings. The crumbling walls and bare paneled floor of the three-level gallery perfectly complement Kiefer's large gray and ochre canvases, punctuated with his pale, pink fields of flowers and iconic images of Mao Zedong in straight-armed salute to the horizon. They have a poignant if obvious parallel to the artist's earlier work exploring Germany's fascistic history.
Considering the installation of the Kiefer paintings, could it be that some new art just looks more comfortable outside the walls of a pristine white cube? In another show on view in London, Modern Art, Inc. installed an exhibition of paintings by Brad Kahlhamer in a large, unfurnished living room space in Hoxton House, a long stone's throw from their permanent gallery on Redchurch Street. Modern Art's proprietors may have chosen the venue because their gallery was being used for another show, abstract paintings of tree branches by Clare Woods that apparently sold out before the exhibition even opened.
But it so happens that Kahlhamer's paintings -- strange, colorful hybrids of Native American-ish elements thrown about the canvas with other figures and shapes in a dimly obscure narrative -- sit remarkably warmly in this particular setting. But for the looming presence of an art dealer in the corner, the room's roaring fireplace, bright lights and simply plastered walls almost belong in your average, sparsely furnished London flat.
The Delfina Project Space has highlighted another way in which new art can be illuminated when it is thrown back into an old context. In this case, the old context is not a physical space but a style of arrangement that has long since gone out of vogue: the salon. In Victorian times, the Royal Academy's salon exhibitions, the visual art equivalent of "Top of the Pops," were the pinnacle of establishment, for the artists featured in the exhibition and for those society types who attended the show's openings.
Alternative venues like the Grosvenor Gallery began to question the tastefulness of floor-to-ceiling, frame-to-frame hangs, but by the 20th century the floodgates really opened, and the cluttered look became as uncool as the paintings that had typically been hung in that way. And then as almost a throwaway, painting itself became uncool, too.
But all this is changing. Curator David Gilmour is working from the premise that much of contemporary painting is marked by a creative position somewhere between the proverbial rock and hard place of high art and low art. The artists on view at Delfina come from London, Berlin and New York, and the idea is that there are a breadth of artistic developments underway in those cities that the salon-style hang makes apparent.
Indeed, Sean Landers' Picasso-like rendition, Le Sculpteur, has a twisted form that echoes in the adjacently-hung amorphous shapes of Simon Bill's Hallucigenia,Marlene Dumas' Stripper and Glenn Brown's Kinder Transport.David Thorpe's grayish paint-by-numbers Rocky Mountain Bronco looks especially banal next to Stefan Jung's metallic, digitized geometric forms in Lokal. The one drawback is that many of the artists shown are so familiar that one wonders if anything new is to be gained from the visual cacophony.