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by Laura K. Jones
The 2008 art season in London kicked off on Jan. 10 with an opening for Haunch of Venison’s newly acquired painting star, Rachel Howard, she of the "suicide paintings," a cheery line of exploration for which she trawls forensic magazines and internet sites. Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles showed her troubling pictures of the hanged last year, as did the Bohen Foundation in New York, but now she’s found her London gallery home.

The images of "How to Disappear Completely," as the exhibition is titled, are made by pouring multiple layers of household gloss down the canvas in smooth surfaces of descending paint, which is interrupted by ghostly black figures with smudged-out faces. Franz (2007) is a lifeless boy who dangles from a rope, while Consuela (2007), a frenzy of black brushstrokes, is slumped across a desk. These figures swim up to mid canvas like specters in the dark.

The line of Howard’s preliminary ink drawings calls to mind Egon Schiele. The forlorn Black Dog (2007), a scrappy abandoned individual and the only "live" figure of the exhibition, seems himself to be barely hanging on to existence. Dominating the top floor are five luminous, transcendent abstractions, referred to as "suicide paintings," too (in reference to Mark Rothko?). Prices are rumored to be £8,000-£45,000 for Howard’s paintings, but a drawing can still be snaffled up for £1,000.

Let’s call it a grand requiem for the wordless and forgotten, and for those who were all at sea. A bevy of friends flooded the gallery for the opening, proving the theory that Howard is impeccably connected. Artists Mat Collishaw, Angus Fairhurst and Marcus Harvey, Gagosian director Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, photographer Johnny Shand Kydd, and the two Keiths, Coventry and Tyson. Howard’s husband, Hugh Allan, was on hand, of course, though minus business partner Damien Hirst, who was still on winter break in Mexico. (Rachel was once Hirst’s assistant and is always remembered by journalists, no doubt to her chagrin, as his "best spot painter.")

A bit of a do later at 5 Cavendish Square (quite swank), with a lot of champagne and wood paneling, then to the Groucho Club until far, far too late. Trolley Gallery director Gigi Gianucci caused a kerfuffle in the club lobby after he lost his pants as the bouncers hoiked him out onto the street for the second time. Some things never change.

Next it was off to an altogether more restrained affair at The Approach gallery’s second, recently opened space on Mortimer Street, W1, on Jan. 24. A good eye for curating, and displaying work, once more, from gallery director Jake Miller. "Paintings 1936-2008" brings together works from Andro Wekua, Michael Raedecker, Rezi van Lankveld, Sam Windett and Neal Tait (£2,500-£65,000) as well as loans from the private owners of works by Francis Picabia and René Daniëls -- both veritable triumphs for the gallery and, of course, not for sale.

René Daniëls' Painting on Unknown Languages (1985), a large abstracted image of an empty room, its interior lit by sad, tiny windows, looks across at the actual and more optimistic windows situated at the opposite end of the gallery. Picabia’s Portrait de Femme’ (ca. 1936-39) is from his "Transparencies" series, in which he intertwined and overlapped the flattened features of people and things to make them appear three-dimensional. Raedecker’s new Frame (2008), a pale painting of a simple kitchen table with chairs, is, well, just sparse and solitary and beautiful. His trademark use of muted-color thread speaks of empty rooms, departed souls; things like that.

A distinctively gentle, eerie and, can I say, Approachian feel runs throughout "Paintings 1936-2008" and was very much appreciated by the art nobs who dropped by, Rebecca Warren, painter Caragh Thurig, Chris Ofili and Peter Doig -- in town to prepare for his epic opening at the Tate Britain (more on that later).

Down the road on the bus to the delightfully idiosyncratic Roman Signer show at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly. What is going on in Roman’s mind? I couldn’t find that out because he -- literally -- can’t speak a word of English apart from "yes." Instead, he sticks to what he knows best -- his native Swiss German and embracing the absurdist potential of machines. There went a red lawnmower, sans handles, tootling along on the parquet floor of the enormous old bank, driven by some hidden remote control device or a desire for mischief. It kept bumping in to peoples’ feet and proved a never-ending source of amusement; then, later, a never-ending source of annoyance.

Downstairs, a big old silver fan on the floor, facing the ceiling, made a whisky bottle hanging on a string twirl round. Inside the gallery’s old vault space was a washed-out film of Roman strapped into an old-fashioned weight loss machine, the vibrating belt jiggering him around as he repeatedly tried to fire a gun at a target. I love this bonkers film, especially because it’s called Old Shatterhand. I’m not allowed to know the price of it or anything else. I might phone up and pretend to be a hedge fund manager. Maybe I shouldn’t.

The next day, the University of the Arts London -- the umbrella institution that houses, among other schools, the Chelsea College of Art -- brought together Chelsea’s alumni and tutors for ". . . same as it ever was: Paintings at Chelsea 1990-2007." Here are largely early works from the pens and brushes of the young Chantal Joffe, Chris Ofili, Dexter Dalwood and the rest of the Chelsea gang. Martin Creed’s Work No. 250 is a pencil scribble, Ofili’s Blue Sparrow is an odd work from what must have been an off day and Doig shows Metropolitan (Stag) (2005), a Rastafarian holding on to a tree.

Photographs next, cool and minimal, at the Jan. 25 opening of (and dinner for) Poppy de Villeneuve’s "This is a story of hope and we are all characters in it" at the Paradise Row gallery in an old church hall. Miss de Villeneuve -- New York-based, London-bred -- is a favorite photographer of Dazed and Confused and Vogue magazines, but her fine-art sensibilities are also well honed.

After a year’s stint living in the grounds of the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana, photographing the lifer inmates, de Villeneuve went on the road and came across some people who live on the barren strip of desert that flanks the Rio Grande. The trip produced images with intense narratives behind them, both personal and national. And there’s faith here, too, in the old Humanist sense that images can evoke compassion. The desert folk look desperate, but it’s OK, because they also look interesting, and photograph well in black and white.

After much quaffing of red wine by the likes of Richard Strange, Keith Coventry (he gets around), David Birkin and Eloise Fornieles, the vicar with a long plaited ponytail that lives next door could be spotted escorting a number of faltering diners through the estates to taxi ranks and relative safety on the Bethnal Green Road. You’ve still got to love the Eastend. Even if all the heavyweight galleries are moving back to W1.

Even further east, then, to the original Approach gallery in E2, where the Dutch artist Germaine Kruip has deconstructed a Theo Van Doesberg painting and made it into a kinetic mirrored sculpture. (Buying one from this edition sets you back £18,000). The Approach has, for the first time in years, removed the fake wall blocking the windows, so flooding the gallery with natural light. A good job really, seeing as the efficacy of "The Illuminated Void," as the exhibition is titled, relies somewhat on light bouncing off mirrors. An assorted crowd was advised to come to the earliest art opening in the history of the western world -- 3 pm on Feb. 2 -- to catch the last of the daylight, and most seemed pleased they did as their fractured reflections started to bounce off walls. It was like being handed free drugs at a nightclub coat check.

Staying east and loving it was the theme for the Parasol Unit’s big Darren Almond show, "Fire Under Snow." Tide (2008) is a large wall piece made of 600 digital clocks covering a single wall. Each time a minute passes, a number flips over on the master clock and 599 slave clocks follow. This, says the overly helpful press release, "reminds viewers that the passage of time is unstoppable," so, thanks for that.

Away from the almighty jolting sound that each minute brought was an almost psychedelically calming 14-minute film in the next room called In the Between (2006), which documents Almond’s journey on a train from China to Tibet. It has monks chanting and a river of multicolored flags flying and powdery beige mountain landscapes whizzing by, presented across three screens. That triptych format somehow reinforces the hallucinatory bent. Is that because you think you’ve seen an image before, then realize you just have, on another portion of the screen? I think so.

Heartbreaking and claustrophobic is Bent (2007), a single-screen projection of a man in a toxic Indonesian mine, schlepping the almighty load of sulphur he has just hewn out of a rock face up a mountain in the deathly and polluting air. A steadicam is attached to his arm, or his shoulder, and so the viewer is forced to absorb the escalating exhaustion and pain on his face. I left in tears. (I told Almond that at the Doig opening later in the week and couldn’t tell if he was horrified or pleased.)

The Hawaiian-born artist Paul Pfeiffer has his second exhibition at the compact and bijou Thomas Dane Gallery in St. James. Live from Neverland (2007) is a video that replays footage from Michael Jackson’s 2003 TV documentary in which he admitted to sharing his bed with a number of children. It was all downhill from there for Jacko, and Pfeiffer responds to a life spiraling awfully out of control with a video of a choir of 80 Filipino theater students carefully reciting Michael Jackson's confession in the style of a Greek chorus. The two videos are synched so that the voices of the choir coincide with Jackson's monologue. Koko (2007) is a video of a gorilla being forced to respond to camera. So, it’s uncomfortable themes of exploitation and vulnerability all round, then.

Round the corner to the mighty White Cube Mason’s Yard, where nine monumental pink marble sculptures by Marc Quinn sit and breathe and inspire awe in the low-lit basement gallery. Evolution (2005-07) is science translated into art and represents the growth of the human fetus during its gestation. The almost unrecognizable primitive creatures are disturbing, fleshy, colossal and a snip at £225,000 each.

Upstairs is a veritable forest of delicate flower sculptures on plinths. Garden (2000) is based on hybridized and collaged parts of natural phenomena. Orchards, fruit and flowers are fused together in bronze and lacquered with a pretty luminescent surface. It’s all about squeamishness and naughty modern humans wanting fruit to be flown to their local supermarket out of season. Which is bad. But in this context it can’t help looking like it’s good.

Jenny Holzer’s "Detained" at Monika Spruth Philomene Magers gallery uses declassified U.S. government documents concerning the abuse of Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers. The star of the show is a dazzling revolving LED configuration made of 10 semicircular components, all carrying statements from the various accused soldiers’ case files that Holzer trawled through. Information rotates on the screens, flashing violently and changing color periodically, and at times becomes overwhelming. "WHEN WE REMOVED HIM FROM THE GROUPED CELL, {XXXXX} WAS SHAKING, CRYING, AND VISIBLY UPSET," and the like, flash round and round, quite rightly invoking a sense of unease. 

Defying easy categorization as always, Ed Ruscha has brought "Paintings" to the Gagosian Gallery on Britannia Street, opening on Feb. 5. A cigarette-smoking David Hockney greeted Mr. Ruscha on the street -- did everyone used to smoke inside galleries? I can’t remember now -- and a swarm of expensive looking people soon gathered around the two grandees. Hockney produced a small silver self-cleaning ashtray that he bought in Tokyo for £800. He carries it everywhere with him. A sucking motion sort of sweeps the ash in to a central sealed vessel. "Every month or so I just pick out the tiny nub of compressed cigarette and just flick it away," he said.

Inside were Michael Craig-Martin, Harland Miller (whose exhibition at White Cube in April is based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe) and Jerry Hall (among others) looking at Ruscha’s five pairs of paintings. Mountains feature a lot, as do planks of wood. This seems to be all about transformation, things perishing, and stuff like that. The painted couples are similar in subject and form, as Ruscha teams up one painting with a later version of the same work. It was off to Nobu then, where reports surfaced that a paparazzo was chasing Jerry Hall outside because she was wearing no underwear. I think they call that the money shot.

Quickly then, on the Tube, to Tate Britain for the exhibition that everyone’s been waiting for. Peter Doig’s retrospective quite simply takes your breath away. The Tate has arranged the two decades of work into themed rooms, but I was too busy imbibing those strange images, which look like they’re painted on old material, to write said themes down. But the repeated motifs include the kayak, the lonely bean farmer, the snowy dreamscapes, the ski jackets, people standing in ponds, a dilapidated Modernist building viewed through a forest.

Doig’s paintings have such a European and filmic sensibility, and let you lose yourself inside them, that I could have stayed looking forever. Back out in the Duveen galleries it was all about champagne, cheese sticks, Grayson Perry looking man-sexy in a tracksuit top and jeans, sculptor Gary Webb enjoying himself a lot as usual, more champagne, more cheese sticks. Then we were transported -- on coaches! -- to the rather brassy Café de Paris in Leicester Square. "Why here?" I asked, when the Tate would have surely paid for Claridges Ballroom. "It’s a nostalgia thing," said Peter. "I used to be the doorman."

LAURA K. JONES is a journalist based in London. She has written for the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, the Saatchi Magazine and