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LONDON DISPATCH
by Laura K. Jones
 
A last-ditch attempt at fundraising to save the Colony Room -- the Soho watering hole and private members club of Francis Bacon and his successor Damien Hirst (at least in terms of infamy and work ethic) -- took place at a grand old 18th-century mansion in Portland Place. The night was fuelled by pork crackling sandwiches with apple sauce and organized by a rag-taggle breakaway group of members working under the umbrella title of Save the Colony Rooms (STCR). Tracey Emin was said to have had a silent hand in supporting the night. But, crucially, STCR was definitely not endorsed by the Colonyís distinctively strange proprietor Michael Wojas, who has been selling off the majority of the art that had been donated to the club over the years, much to the consternation of many Colony Room members. Wojas later put a big chunk of the art into a hastily arranged auction at a disused church on the Marylebone Road, but despite the lashings of publicity, the sale bombed.

So much was being written about saving the Colony at the end of last year (London mayor Boris Johnson even got behind it), that I stopped reading and listening at one point. Iím pretty sure the club has gone now or morphed into something else. Tellingly, the likes of Hirst and Sarah Lucas, another Colony regular, didnít offer a lifeline, at least not so that anybody knew about it. Iím wondering if, like me, they thought that itís sometimes OK to say goodbye to so-called institutions anyway. The Colony wasnít what it used to be, and it certainly wasnít functioning as a private membersí club anymore. As far as I could see, anyone (including me) could walk in off the street, and that particular brand of lunchtime-through-till-lunchtime debauchery has surely become a bit predictable anyway. Saying that, the shade of green on the walls always managed to retain its allure.

So I went along to the fundraiser at Portland Place. There I talked to the two key Save the Colony Rooms spokesmen: Sebastian Horsley, artist and dandy who had himself voluntarily crucified in the Philippines a few years back; and a big, entirely stationary man called Twiggy. (Twiggy has his drinks fetched for him. Why not, I suppose? Iím working towards that outcome myself.) They reminisced about the old days when Bacon and (the very drunk, famous journalist) Jeffrey Bernard would be carping away at the bar.

Twiggy recounted the following dialogue: Bacon said, "I donít like gays. Iím an old-fashioned homosexual. . . . You know your problem, Jeffrey? Youíre not gay. If youíd have been gay youíd have had much more success." Jeffrey said, "I imagine youíre right Francis. The problem is, I encountered a girl in a barn when I was a boy of 12, and Iíve been c*ntstruck ever since."

On then to the Groucho for the after-show party of Keith Coventryís Haunch of Venison show, where earlier, he (or a girl behind a desk, at least) was selling silkscreen prints of crack pipes at £100 a pop. It was the first part of a two-tier retrospective of Coventryís works, and included his "Estate Paintings," "History Paintings" and the "Junk" series [see "Esthetics and Anesthesia," Mar. 7, 2008]. I talked to an art-loving viscount (who wonít let me name him) on his way out of the show, all spent-up, new purchase in hand. Said viscount -- whose comital title ranks him just above a baron, and a shade below an earl -- bought the crack-pipes print for his "elderly mother-in-lawís birthday." I imagine she was thrilled.

The Haunch is about to move to 6 Burlington Gardens, to the building that used to house the Museum of Mankind, a massive pile that backs onto the Royal Academy. The gallery opens there on Mar. 12, 2009, with a mammoth show called "Mythologies." Ilya Kabakov, Polly Morgan, Rachel Howard, Damien Hirst, Mat Collishaw and seemingly half the living artists in the world are showing new work that responds to and acknowledges the buildingís previous role. I was lucky enough to have seen one of the exhibitionís key pieces in progress because I live next door to its creator, Polly Morgan. Her work, titled Carrion Call, is a wooden coffin, derelict and blackened with age, and chock full of newly hatched (taxidermied) chicks, their necks craning in search of light, squawking mouths open for food. From a distance the baby birds look like patches of mould. The piece is mesmeric.

Alan Miller, one of Londonís last true mavericks, died last month, much to the sadness of his family and friends. Alan was a nude radio guest, an artist, musician, curator and an acclaimed tutor at the Royal College of Art. Hit very hard by his passing are son Jake, director of the Approach Gallery, and all of Alanís old students, including Tracey Emin.

Emin recalled how her tutor had become a confidante during her unnerving first year there. When she was on the verge of giving up, Alan came to the rescue. "He was very kind and he said, "I'm going to show you a really good shortcut," said Emin. "And for the next week after college had finished, between 5pm and 10pm, he spent every evening showing me how to mix paints, what brushes to use, and most importantly, how to stretch canvas. He did this out of the kindness of his heart, in his own time, and over that week we became really good friends and I realized within the RCA I had an ally Ė- someone who could practically really help me, no bullshit, no pressure, just really good advice that has helped me right until this day. That summer I did a whole series of paintings, big oil paintings, and during the summer holidays Alan even popped in to see how I was getting on and I remember his great big smile and him saying, ĎYou've done it, you've done it!í"

Iíve never been to a funeral that had clapping, but everyone broke into a spontaneous round of applause at the end of Alanís service, because it seemed right to. The coffin left St Marylebone Crematorium with Johnny Cashís version of Weíll Meet Again playing through the speakers. Alan was so very much alive, thatís itís not a clichť at all to say that I literally canít believe that heís dead.

The following week, at the opening of Evan Hollowayís show at The Approach W1, a sickly scatological little Russian artist named Alexander Brener, accompanied by his masturbating girlfriend, dropped his trousers and evacuated his bowels all over the floor. He then proceeded to wipe the excretion all over the window of the Approach, spelling out the words "Sold Out." Is he making a sixth-formerís point about capitalism? I donít care. This was, at the very least, bad timing. I know of a meeting that heíll be sitting in on in a few weeksí time and I am going to go there and make a citizenís arrest, in the hope that he decides to leave London and us all alone. This could backfire on me. (Pun possibly intended.)

In Berlin, at Spruth Magers gallery, I saw Cindy Shermanís first show in Europe in five years. The main space there is as tall as a cathedral and this time Shermanís photographs had her transformed into various lovely spooky, grumpy old rich girls. Sometimes she loomed out of a forest setting. I got the impression she was going for the look of those "paintings" that used to be hawked door to door in the 1970s and Ď80s, of woodland settings made from velour and some kind of mother-of-pearl sparkle. The work also reminded me of those hazy makeover photo-shoots you can have done in suburban shopping centers for £25.

Andreas Gursky was there, as was Russian painter Evgeni Dybsky. I even saw Veruschka, a supermodel whose heyday was probably around the mid-Ď60s. I think she was in Michelangelo Antonioniís Blow-Up.

Back home, at Ibid Projects, I looked at some beautiful and strange painterly photographs by Olivier Richon, professor of photography at the Royal College. "Anima(l)" is a series of hyper-real still lifes with animals, lemons, books, smoke. Individually and as a group, theyíre totally silent and silencing. I noticed I was comforted, especially by the image of a monkey touching the pages of a book, while having a think. I like it so much when I can see an animal having a think. Especially dogs, but now monkeys, too. Is it their confusion about becoming a bit more conscious? Itís almost heartbreaking.

It was nerve-shatteringly cold outside during the arctic snap, but after Richon, I forced myself down to the Paradise Row gallery, host of the Wallis Galleryís farewell exhibition, "Wallis Dies and Goes to Paradise." The crappy and pointless 2012 London Olympics, as Iíve said before, have ensured that the rash of artist-run spaces in Hackney Wick -Ė Wallis Gallery at Wallis Road being one of them -- are to be bulldozed. Artists Ed Fornieles and Ross McNicol were at the helm of the Wallis and said goodbye to all that by cooking a winter broth and something like pork and pomegranate, so I was even gladder to have (almost) skated down there.

Richard Wentworth -Ė who might as well be called the father of the large group of artists that were connected to the Wallis (and who was once some of the groupís college tutor) -- made a funny speech. "Before I stood up, I was asking the person next to me about what constitutes a tribe. But we couldnít come up with anything. Well, I suppose a tribe has to be a group of people that are loyal to each other and then disloyal to each other. And it must be full of people who are very attractive to one another. Why am I holding this plate?" It doesnít quite translate to the page, but everyone laughed.

Lots of beautiful young people with twinkly eyes made for a very wintry, classical dining scene. That lot have got so much energy. They -Ė well, mainly Ross McNicol actually -- cook for hundreds at the drop of a hat!

I liked looking at some of the Wallis work again, especially Amelia Whitelawís Bread of the Dead. Itís the cooked residue of salted bread dough, dripped and pushed through a net sculpture, and mounted in a tabernacle or altar. Thereís no edge to it; itís just honest.

Staying with food, later that week, I was lucky to be able to cook dinner for Alex Melamid, partly to thank him for once sending me a digital camera for no apparent reason. It was the first time I had met the father of SotsArt, after years of corresponding via email, so I went all-out and, erm, grilled some sausages. Melamid was in London to discuss his upcoming Phillips de Pury exhibition, to be held at the new Saatchi Gallery, May 21-June 16, 2009. "Oh My God" will showcase 15 new oil portraits painted from life in the Old Master style, featuring American Hip-Hop artists, Roman cardinals and Russian oligarchs.

He told me that his 91-year-old mother Ludmila Chornaya had recently found a stack of his "youth" paintings, works he had made in his 20s and 30s, collecting dust under a bed in her Moscow flat.  She sold them for $1 million and pocketed the cash without telling anyone. Alex was furious but then calmed down. "Itís her business. Itís so unfair she never experienced capitalism," he said. "Being so active as she is, she would have been a multi-billionaire by now."

A very odd and affecting show was Bjorn Venoís "Chapter II & II" at the Nettie Horn Gallery. Here are plenty of high-definition luscious panoramas of Bjorn in various attitudes of despair. In one picture heís in a suit, hanging on to his mother and screaming on top of a cliff; in another heís crouching down in front of a wooden cabin, looking disturbed, with his crown jewels hanging out. Thereís a video of him moaning in agony: it goes on for an uncomfortably protracted period of time. These self-portraits are all meticulously planned and all seem to be asking exactly what it is to be a man. Veno has a very long ponytail and a moustache and he looks exactly like a man I used to know whose name was Larry Lecter.

I then went on to a show of the dead painter Ull Hohn at Wolfgang Tillmanís tiny exhibition space, Between Bridges. I knew nothing about Hohnís work but found I loved his chocolate slabs of painted wood and his deliberately warm, homey "pure painting" landscapes. Hohnís partner, Tom Burr, I notice, is showing concurrently at Stuart Shaveís Modern Art.

Sarah Lucas had a book launch at Damien Hirstís newly opened, second venue of his Other Criteria shop. I suppose Hirst is the only person in Britain at the moment who can actually open a new business without fear of financial collapse. Lucas and artist friend Olivier Garbay have made a 732-page book of their work, called The Mug, that explores their collaborative practice. There were so many people at the launch and book signing, I couldnít get to see a copy, but I am sure it is suitably, deliciously esoteric. Instead of pushing my way to the main attraction, I discovered the best looking security guard in the world, and spent a few minutes telling him that he was in the wrong job. A low-key after-launch at the Toucan pub, for Guinness and oysters.

I loved a show by Boo Saville at the Trolley Gallery. Boo is the sister of painter Jenny Saville but the siblingsí work could not be more different. Boo works in Biro and gel pens and for "Butter Sunk" has taken a book called The Bog People as her starting point for traveling around the surreal forms of archaeological human remains. A man called P.V. Glob -Ė what other name could he have? Ė- wrote The Bog People, an account of the discovery of centuries-old human corpses in Danish bogs. Saville told me, "Iím an eternalist"; she appears to be obsessed with documenting the sacrificial, totemic nature of these (often murdered) cadavers, the gnarled texture of the preserved skin being brought into focus with her layering up of intricate pen strokes.  

The Bog People also inspired Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney to write his poem Bogland in 1969, from which the title of Savilleís show is derived. As I was lucky enough to have once accidentally fallen into a pot plant with Heaney during a drunken poetry evening at the British Library a few years ago, I am still in possession of his assistantís email address. (And if thatís not a non-sequitur, I donít know what is). Knowing that Heaney might possibly be interested in "Butter Sunk," I passed the contact to Boo in the hope that he would visit the show if he is to be in London, perhaps for the panel discussion on Mar. 16, 2009, a talk that I have somehow been strong-armed into taking part in. We live in hope.

Another frightening public speaking affair that I was persuaded to be a part of was an interview I conducted with sculptor Gary Webb at the Slade School of Art last week. It was part of a (to-date) outstandingly good series of talks organized by the Sladeís head of painting, Andrew Stahl. Stahl has recently managed to convince Julian Schnabel, Jane and Louise Wilson, Bruce McLean, Paula Rego, Rachel Howard and Phil Allen to come and talk about their work to about 200 students. Webb and I had a lot to live up to. Neither of us being skilled orators, we rambled on and the time went mercifully quickly. Funnily enough, after all those nerves, I wouldnít mind doing it all again now.

Masters of speaking, and both with lots of interesting things to say, were Cornelia Parker and Marina Warner, discussing Parkerís work and particularly her 2007 film, Chomskian Abstract, for the most recent Speakersí Society event. More interesting than the Chomsky film in a way was the slide-show mini-retrospective of Parkerís frankly amazing body of work; a close-up photograph of the grooves in a Tchaikovsky record that belonged to Adolf Hitler, a doll in the likeness of Oliver Twist whose head had been chopped off by the actual guillotine blade that beheaded Marie Antoinette, an image of a feather from the pillow on Sigmund Freudís couch, suspended fragments of timber from a black-congregation American church that was burned to the ground in an arson attack, suspended fragments of timber from a white-congregation American church that was burned to the ground because of a lightning strike. This fascination with and manipulation of relics is so cleverly uncomplicated, itís breathtaking.

Parker works frequently with people who have nothing to do with art. She talked about spending a few months with the H.M. Customs and Excise officials based at various English ports, where she was immediately given bags and bags of chopped up videotape from their hauls of confiscated pornographic films. From these she made her "Pornographic Drawings," Rorschach blots formed from the black ink obtained after dissolving the tape. A number of months later, the customs officials suddenly decided to give her a large bin-bag of incinerated Class A drugs. "Why did you wait so long to give me the bag of incinerated drugs, when you gave me the porn tapes immediately?" asked Parker. "Because the drugs are more symbolic," was their peculiarly poetic reply.

I donít know how I found myself invited to a dinner to improve relations between art people from Russia and Iceland, held in a room at the top of the Groucho Club, but I did end up at that summit. It was hosted by the garrulous Nicolas Iljine, vice president of Global Cultural Asset Management, a group that goes around the world encouraging museums to give birth to themselves in the middle of nowhere. Itís the new project of ex-director of the Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens. This much I learned. The night was co-hosted by curator and art collector Francesca von Habsburg and had Daniel Birnbaum, the next curator of the Venice Biennale, as its guest. A number of bombastic Russian and Icelandic artists with impressive singing voices were also there. Once drowned in red wine, those Russian voices broke into song: a favorite folk song apparently, which was promptly met with an outraged shout from the Icelanders, "But that is our folk song!"

It turns out the Russians and the Icelanders both have the same folk song -Ė same melody, same meaning -- but with different words. Who knew? You couldnít make it up.

Lastly to the Camden Arts Centre and a posthumous retrospective of the paintings of Liz Arnold (1964-2001). I know a number of Lizís friends have been keen to show Lizís body of work since her untimely death and now theyíve organized a welcome, beautifully hung show. Both curator and critic Sacha Craddock and journalist and presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon gave unsentimental, clear eyed talks about the work and it was a very good thing that Lizís mother Evelyn and brother Andrew could attend, to finally see the paintings shown as they should be.


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