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LONDON HORTICULTURE
by Ana Finel Honigman
 
Summer in England is lovely. The sun shines until 9 pm. Crowds of happy people drink and smoke outside their local pubs all day. Flowers bloom everywhere. And the grey British pallor turns a pretty pastel pink or orange. Suddenly the heat suggests a reason why enormous young women are exposing their bellies, breasts and thongs simultaneously.

But beneath this breezy fun are edgier social questions, of course, and a spattering of exhibitions around London are adding skepticism to the roster of summer activities.

Gary Hume, whose first signature series consisted of door-shaped paintings of doors done in household enamel, is one of England’s most popular artists and the only yBa to accept a nomination to become one of the 80 members of the Royal Academy. Some critics view Hume’s style as cynical commentary on a range of heady topics, from the pretensions of Color Field painting to our superficial culture in general. Yet these lofty theories slide right off his slick, shiny surfaces, which have always seemed as delicious, refreshing and substantive as ice cream. Like his contemporary Julian Opie, Hume’s best work works because it is light, bright and sexy.

Now, Hume has given his images a new kind of weight -- literally -- crafting them out of exotic stone veneers. For "Cave Paintings" at White Cube, May 26-July 1, 2006, the 44-year-old artist has made seven new works using slabs of vibrantly colored marble, granite and quartz, instead of enamel paint. The slinky, loose outlines of Hume’s streamlined forms are now made using lead tracery, as in stained-glass windows.

Over each image, Hume adds more lead, creating a lacework pattern of fauna and flora. The sinuous line is precise and strangely new, giving shape to an expressiveness that draws on its atypical materials. The technique Hume uses here is ordinarily used to carve epitaphs into gravestones, while his veined marbles evoke the opulent interiors of corporate office lobbies.

For "Cave Paintings," Hume has turned away from his usual depictions of flowers, nudes and pop-culture icons in favor of mother-and-child images, some taken from Renaissance and Baroque sources. With a drawing style reminiscent of Jean Cocteau, Hume’s Into the Dangerous World. . . depicts a chubby Christ child pulling away from Mary’s loving embrace. The green veining in the rosy pink marble used for the baby's body matches the muted green stone of his mother. Yet despite this connection, the two bodies are seen as separate beings, and the infant powerfully stands out against his mother and his surroundings.

Milk Full shows a baby’s head hovering over a round form with its red mouth open in a wail. Instead of the expensive, stately stone used for Into the Dangerous World. . ., Hume uses cheaper stuff for Milk Full, rendering the baby's lips and tongue in a manner as sparkly and tacky as disco decor. Yet, the infant’s howl has a real authenticity. The question remains: Do these works have deeper meaning, or are we simply to be content to skate over their lovely, lustrous top layer? Prices for the marble works range up to £175,000.

Similarly playing on the power of unexpected contrasts is the Paris-based American photographer Sara White Wilson, whose distinctive digital photographs are having their London debut at Miranda Fine Arts, a new project space located beneath an optometrist’s office in Bull’s Head Passage, May 18-July 7, 2006. A theorist who finds her inspiration in the streets, Wilson earned a degree focusing on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at Saint John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and now writes for the Paris-based graffiti magazines Graff It! and Blazin’.

Wilson photographs vandalized or peeling posters and advertisements found on the streets of Berlin and Paris, picking up where the décollage works of Nouveau Realistes Mimmo Rotella and Jacques Villeglé left off. Wilson’s selection of images, however, reflects a feminist-infused sensibility recalling the collage work of artists like Barbara Kruger or the Guerilla Girls, and is particularly attentive to gender stereotypes.

Wilson does not use photomontage. Instead, her photographs are documentary. She may make digital adjustments, erasing distracting portions of text and enhancing color contrasts, but she never inserts new material or pairs images that were shot separately.

In Marat, the murdered French revolutionary’s serene visage, familiar from David’s 1793 painting, pokes inelegantly out from the breast of pop singer Joss Stone in a leftover poster for GAP. PopeTart features a dignified portrait of Pope John Paul II, stepping out from behind a red lacquered door, placed next to a sultry, topless brunette pouting on the cover of Nu video magazine. In Dead Pig, two teenage girls inspect a pair of sexy panties while the levitated specter of a decapitated hog lecherously aims his snout at the lacy fabric. All the works are priced between £500-£600.

Equally alert to artistic opportunity is the Peruvian artist Armando Andrade Tudela, whose installation Inka Snow filled Charlotte Road’s Counter Gallery, May 20-June 24, 2006, with an architectural model of a utopian community, crafted largely from mountains of cocaine-like powder. The sculpture is actually made from foam used for architectural models, covered with flocking to give it a powder-coated finish. On the floor are wood planks coated in more white powder, which appear to be drug lines cut through an enormous pile of snow.

By combining a maquette for an idealistic commune with a symbol of hedonistic self-indulgence, Tudela’s sculpture conflates the ideological excesses of the 1970s with extravagant aspirations of the 1980s. Today, hippie self-righteousness and yuppie self-obsession seem equally ridiculous, though they retain a certain appeal. The sight of Tudela’s utopia brings to mind Jay McInerney’s observation in his 1984 masterpiece Bright Lights, Big City, that after a cocaine binge, his brain felt invaded by "brigades of Bolivian soldiers. . . tired and muddy from their long march through the night." Priced at £22,000, it isn’t difficult to imagine Tudela’s sculpture as the nasal Stalingrad of some investment banker or supermodel.

Fluorescent lights, a mainstay of late ‘60s Minimalism, also returned in Ivan Navarro’s second London solo show at Union in Southwark’s Ewer Street, Apr. 19-June 24, 2006. Born in Chile and now living in Brooklyn, Navarro first made an impression with glass doors and floor hatches, lined with tube lights and one-way mirrors so that they seemed to open deep into another dimension. Represented in New York by Roebling Hall, he has exhibited his works at the Whitney Museum, MOCA Los Angeles and the Prague Biennale 2.

His recent London exhibition included not only one of his signature door sculptures but also several other 3D objects made of fluorescent lights. Flashlight, a wheelbarrow constructed of light tubes, is accompanied by a video projection of the sculpture being wheeled around dilapidated train tracks.

Joy Division I and Joy Division II are a pair of sister sculptures that double as coffee tables, their glass tops sitting on bases made of fluorescent lights, one formed into a red swastika and the other into a yellow Star of David. "Joy Division" was a Nazi-era euphemism for Jewish sex slaves forced to work in concentration camp brothels, before it became the name of the famously depressive British band.

Navarro’s conflation of swastika and Star of David with the modernist coffee table suggests that this history has been co-opted as cocktail chatter -- deflecting intelligent peoples’ attention from contemporary genocide and atrocities. Both sculptures are produced in editions of three, priced in the $18,000-$20,000 range.

Equally witty is British artist Boo Ritson, whose first solo show has just closed at David Risley Gallery. Ritson studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art but she clearly feels a certain ambivalence about her medium, as the "sculptural" practice she developed involves slathering objects in paint (somewhat like the veteran French artist Bertrand Lavier) and then photographing them.

For the recent show, titled "Cast," May 11-June 18, 2006, she convinced her models to sit still while she coated them with wet house paint. Like Cindy Sherman’s stereotyped images, these fabricated portraits become simplified, idealized types in which the thick paint applied to the sitters’ heads, hair and clothes resembles cake icing or confection. Though dehydrating and toxic, the thick, creamy surface looks warm and vibrant while extinguishing genuine emotional tones.

Once covered in paint, Ritson’s models must reapply makeup, clothes and accessories. Girlfriend shows a serene-looking woman with red cat-eyed glasses, a red kerchief, lemon polo shirt and an even skin tone. She is unattractively immaculate.

In another photo, a sweet-seeming swimmer demurely casting her eyes downwards is similarly glazed in paint. Her swim cap is a glossy red and her skin shines with a sugary white coating. Her lips are bright red but the image seems frigid, drained of sexuality. By contrast, the male face in Cop is covered in clotted, jaundiced paint, making his professional frown seem to melt away.

Last but not least, the Timothy Taylor Gallery is presenting Bridget Riley’s first solo show since her retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2003. On view June 7-July 15, 2006, the exhibition consists of a new series of geometric oil paintings and gouaches, named after the three summer months she spent at her studio in Les Bassacs in Provence. Like her iconic Op Art paintings from the early 1960s, Riley’s new series consists of undulating, geometric, solid-colored shapes, but with the optical pyrotechnics replaced by simple, pure colors that convey strong emotions.

Riley’s complex palette and her leaf-like patterns and forms are reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s mature collages more than anything else. The gouaches and paintings are priced up to £450,000 + VAT. "Bridget Riley recently celebrated her 75th birthday and is at the peak of her career," gallery rep Lee Johnson enthused.

In Painting with Two Verticals 4, Riley combines patches of mustard yellow, royal blue, pine green and white. The arresting gouache July 1 Bassaces (2004) places violet, peach and periwinkle tones against each other. Lush pink, clear blue and deep green are linked in June 8 Bassaces. The tone of August 7 Bassaces (2002) is softer than its earlier equivalent, as if bleached by the sun. While 23 August (2005) is browned like dried leaves, the oranges that were apricot in August 7 Bassaces are closer to russet in the later gouache.

In the same way that summers blend together, the passage of years between these paintings matters less than the differences in the documented dates would imply. Verdant and vibrant, they transmit the calm warmth and uncomplicated, lazy, loveliness of summer spent outside the city.


ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.