Londoners could be forgiven for thinking that they were in New York this weekend, as temperatures plunged to below-freezing levels in the wake of the city's first good snowfall in a number of years. The cold came at a relatively opportune time, as many galleries were closed to gear up for shows coinciding with Art 2003, which goes on view Jan. 15-19, 2003. The 15th version of the annual art fair, which is largely a British event, boasts more than 100 contemporary art galleries.
Nevertheless, the intrepid art viewer had plenty of reasons to go out in the cold, starting with Sadie Coles HQ on Heddon Street, where the L.A.- based artist JP Munro is showing a series of dense paintings that initially seem to owe more to 15th-century Flemish art than Southern California. Munro fashions bleak overwrought landscapes populated with fantastic beasts and imbedded with modern references. His work brings to mind that of New York artists Walton Ford and Verne Dawson (who incidentally is slated to exhibit his paintings in February at the Victoria Miro Gallery). In all, it's a very self-assured first London show.
The American photographer Anna Gaskell has made her substantial reputation with erotically charged fairy tale images. Her current show at White Cube in Hoxton square is apparently influenced by British novelist Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, Rebecca, with the richly sepia-toned photos focusing on details of the ominous Mandeley mansion. In any case, the exhibition is beautifully installed in a darkened space, which adds to its gothic (even pre-Raphaelite) feel. The show includes a new 21-minute-long video work, in which a girl's face barely moves in front of a gentle curtain of water, giving the installation a further Ophelia-like quality. The show remains on view till Jan. 25.
The publicly funded Photographers Gallery, with its two locations on Great Newport Street, is always a dependable place to find inspiration, as well as a bowl of soup and a cup of tea at its cafe. The space seems to be on a roll at the moment, and is currently showing three different but equally interesting photographers, arguably linked by their outsider status in the art world. In the 1960s and '70s, the John Hinde studio in Dublin was employed to make advertising post cards by Butlins, a down-market holiday "camp" that provided cheap vacations for the working classes in England.
Though elaborately staged using actual guests as actors, the color images -- actually taken under Hinde's supervision by Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nägele and David Noble -- show the absurdities of postwar holiday camp décor in alarming detail. They were never intended for presentation in an art gallery, of course, and I believe we have yBa artist Martin Parr to thank for this treat. What makes the images interesting is the tension between the Hinde studio's perfectionism and the pitifully bemused and clearly less-than-perfect vacationers.
Also on view at the Photographers Gallery is a show by New Yorker Joel Sternfeld, whose images of everyday drama in America were famously made during the 1970s while wandering the country in a Volkswagen bus. This exhibition -- Sternfeld's first in the U.K. -- provides a kind of panoramic overview of North America with the greatest economy possible. His landscapes illustrate the darker elements of the U.S. culture and have elements of David Lynch about them.
One photo shows an elephant standing incongruously in the middle of a country road, being hosed down and surrounded by police and on-lookers. Another image depicts a house on fire next to a pumpkin stand, where people are still obliviously going about their lives. Sternfeld's large-format portraits run a gamut from the resigned homeless to angry Wall Street businessman to the vacuous expression of a Beverly Hills housewife.
Last but not least are the photos of Lee Miller, the Vogue magazine photographer who began her career as a student of and muse for Man Ray and who later married Surrealist collector Roland Penrose. "Portraits from a Life" includes pictures of Man Ray, Picasso and other celebrated artists and historical figures, but it is the images of the glamorous former model in Hitler's bath and enjoying a dejeuner sur l'herbe that are most alluring, and seem to give Miller her enviable place in history. Remarkably, many of the pictures are for sale and reasonably priced at £380; these works are not vintage, of course, but they are printed to order and authenticated by Penrose himself. It takes a great act of will to walk away without first buying a couple of these black and white pictures. The show continues until Jan. 18 and is highly recommended.
More photos are on view south of the Thames at the Essor Gallery on 1 America Street, just over the Southwark Bridge -- Thomas Ruff's photographs of Mies van der Rohe's buildings, on view till Jan. 31. Ruff's work is also on view at the Whitechapel Gallery as part of a show of early work by Mies. At Essor, Ruff is showing both medium-scale photographs of buildings as well as a series of Stereofotos -- small boxes on stands that reveal two photographs of the same building from different perspectives.
Downstairs at Essor is a well-traveled 1997 video by Johan Grimonprez, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a 70-minute-long compilation of media footage on airline disasters and hijackings -- as it would turn out, the first of several works on view in London dealing with tragedy as broadcast on TV. At one point in Grimonprez's video, the mother of an air crash victim hears the news and is left screaming on the floor of JFK airport -- my point of rapid departure. Be warned, you really have to be in the right frame of mind for this work.
By the way, I cannot resist plugging a benefit Thomas Ruff edition published by the Whitechapel -- a blurred image of Mies' famous German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, done in an edition of 250 and currently available for £150. Collectors on a budget shouldn't pass on this -- see www.whitechapel.org.
Next the tour took me from South London to the East End, home of Maureen Paley's Interim Art at 21 Herald Street, where Michael Landy's new series of etchings is on view. Landy, who exhibited in the formative 1988 "Freeze" exhibition organized by Damien Hirst that helped launch the yBa sensation, gained additional notoriety a few years ago when he destroyed all his possessions in a shop window in Oxford Street, the busiest throughfare in Britain, in a project titled Breakdown and sponsored by the provocative avant-garde Art Angel foundation. Despite its popularity with the tabloid press, many art people thought this gesture was little more than a cry for attention (not to mention commercial and critical success). The artist Helen Chadwick had also done a similar piece several years earlier, in which she laid out all her possessions on the street in front of her house in Beck Road, photographed them and returned them to their place.
Landy's new work features etchings of weeds found in urban settings. They are well drawn and, if you can live with the metaphor underpinning the series, then they are also good value. A quick glimpse at the price list showed that they start at about £800 each. The show continues until Jan. 26. Next up is work by Maureen Gallace, opening on Feb. 6, so that with Brad Kahlhamer's show opening this week at Modern Art Inc., Londoners will have the opportunity to see two of the best landscape painters working currently in the States.
From Interim Art it's a short walk north to the Anthony Wilkinson gallery on 242 Cambridge Heath Road, where Matthew Higgs is showing several examples of his "found conceptual art" made from the title pages of second-hand books. Londoners know the California-based Higgs not only as an artist but also as a curator for the ICA, a writer for Artforum, a deejay and, according to Art Review magazine, as the 69th most influential person in the British art world. The works consist of a series of tautologies and in-jokes, such as his use of the Tate paint scheme to provide a background to his texts.
Around the corner in Vyner Street is Nylon, showing the work of Roger Kelly. First impression, and from a distance, is that the work looks remarkably like the highly finished but eccentric landscapes of David Thorpe, who shows at Interim Art. Closer investigation reveals highly process orientated and intensively worked country scenes that end up looking pixilated, as if taken by an early digital camera. I imagine that Kelly is an admirer of both Paul Morrison and Julian Opie and, judging by this show, he has a bright future.
I caught the final day of the "Bloomberg New Contemporaries" show at the Barbican, an exhibition notable for containing two more air disaster pieces, British artist Matt O'dell's PanAm 103 Lockerbie and Japanese video artist Hiraki Sawa's Dwelling, a clever film showing miniature planes flying through an apartment.
Finally, it was back in West London to see the Takashi Murakami show at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, which runs until Jan. 26. It's quite a crowd pleaser and I saw both excitable children and a surprising number of elderly ladies enjoying Murakami's work. It's good to have a show of Murakami in London, where he is less known than he is in New York; this one has come from Paris. Warhol influences are everywhere and are acknowledged, but Murakami's current work also owes a big debt to the post-Warhol esthetic made famous by Jeff Koons.
As at Whitechapel, the Serpentine has a policy of having artists make a multiple or edition to accompany each show. Unfortunately, the Murakami edition is sold out, but a limited edition poster is available for £90. Quite by chance the piece is entitled Snow, and what could be more fitting than to walk into a frosty Hyde Park with this souvenir, avoiding snowballs from the Dickensian street urchins?
Allow me to mention one last show that I missed -- Jane Simpson's installation at Gagosian, which has had rave reviews. The new monograph on her work, too, is an essential addition to any library of current art. Also look out for is work by Sarah Staton and Georgie Hopton, coming up later this month at the Milton Keynes Gallery.