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Barbara’s Blog #9: Galleries a go go

Can we really go out now? Our resident blogger Barbara Chandler says yes, and has rushed to get her fix of culture, design, craft and art:

Could Covid be retreating? Certainly there are encouraging signs as the government “unlocks” somewhat creakily its much touted “road map” (sorry about the mixed metaphors, but there they go… I could throw in some trains and football, because we get fresh linguistic linguines at every briefing.)

But the big museums and galleries are furious. Their openings have been shunted back to mid May (though you can book now). “This is a bizarre and damaging decision which makes little sense in terms of public health,” blasts one London museum director, albeit anonymously, in the arts magazine Apollo. “If libraries, community centres and department stores can open, so should museums and galleries. It feels like ministers are not making the case for culture.” The gist of the rest of the article was “so what’s new?”

There is however a lovely loophole. Small galleries have opened up, apparently off the hook because they are “commercial spaces.” Many of them have special shows.  So, delighting in my double vaccine,  I’ve been freely feeding an art/craft/design addiction.

Blue Jeans & Brown Clay: Artists and Designers at the JB Blunk House

I was intrigued to pick up on the story of sculptor JB Blunk via Instagram. Apparently “he ignored the traditional separation of art and design.” That got me going, as it’s what we wrestled with in the last blog.

Who was this man? The story is racy and romantic, writ large against Californian woods, hills and ocean, as told at the Kate MacGarry gallery just five minutes from Shoreditch High Street station. (Be sure to scan the gallery QR code on entering, for access to videos as you work the room).

JB – as they all call him – was born in 1926 in Kansas. When he died in 2002 he left a house he and first wife Nancy Waite Harlow had built themselves from felled and found timbers and assorted beach and forest flotsam, from the roof, walls and doors to the furniture and the ceramic tableware. And for JB, the whole place was just “one big sculpture – house, studio, fruit trees, vegetable garden and chickens.” He was big and strong and early on he simply picked up the tool that was to define him: “I knew how to use a chain saw and it was one of those things. One day you just start.”

Great hewn sculptures were to follow, notably The Planet (1969) a circular “bench” 13 ft across in the lobby of the Oakland Museum of California. And the house itself, of course, with its totemic entry arch, nestling in a densely –wooded ridge above Inverness, a small town 50 miles north of San Francisco.

Ceramics were JB’s other love. He had already spent four years in Japan apprenticed to the master potters Kitaoji Rosanjin and Kaneshige Toyo, as the result of a chance encounter with the artist Isamu Noguchi.

JB’s daughter Mariah Nielson, who grew up in the house, is now safeguarding her father’s legacy, and over the years has invited contemporary artists and makers to visit. The work (much recently made) in this show (open until 24 April) is by a London contingent, and there were some pleasantly familiar names. Designer Max Lamb, for example, whom I first remember doing clever things with polystyrene at the Design Museum having just graduated from the RCA. He was lucky enough to do a three month residency shortly afterwards in 2008.

“We were surrounded by – immersed in – JB’s furniture, art and ceramics,” he told me. “He’d even made kitchen utensils like the stone rolling pin. And we could use the workshop tools, the chain saws themselves.” JB had roughly cut a sink from a single piece of cypress and finished it off with a chisel and sandpaper, with deep, long grooves.

For this show, Max has made four Blunk-inspired chairs, each fashioned from a single length of square-section Douglas Fir – initially left over from a previous project. “The challenge is to use all the wood, nothing more nothing less.” The results, all different, have a quirky cheeky human quality and are prototypes for an edition, which Max is just starting on now.

I also met designer Attua Apericio when she had newly graduated from the RCA and was experimenting with materials. She and her glass-making partner Jochen Holz have not visited but their pieces have been sparked by Mariah Neilson’s new book on her father’s work (available from the gallery). Attua has been experimenting with waste borosilicate glass left over from Jochen’s colourful glassworks (also in the show). “But the more I learn the less I know,” she says with the disarming modesty that makes every chat so delightful.

Watch a series of short Vimeo films on the artists taking part here.

Internal Objects

I’d heard there was another artist in town making houses, and I quickly clicked for a ticket to Rachel Whiteread’s new show at the imposing Gagosian in the West End. Here is an abrupt departure from Whiteread’s famous “casts” of spaces. I always found these somewhat bland slabs a bit “difficult” though I did love the smoothness and translucency of the resin.

Here, each in its own vast room, sit two little houses – not more than sheds really. They’ve been built of scrap materials: branches, planks, trellis, corrugated sheet, neatly joined and then unified with plain white emulsion scrupulously applied. They are decrepit and ramshackle, the second  more than the first, with an exploded roof and escaping innards. Yet at the same time pristine, poised and new born. If that does not sound too pretentious.

On the wall are framed artworks. Pieces of corrugated “iron” in lurex shades turn out to be papier mache, and what looks like card is bronze casts. These had me fooled.

Crafting a Difference

At the beginning of the year, Kenyan-born Shiro Muchiri, who studied in Milan and has her own London design practice, was all set to unveil an audacious project within the charming five-storey West End town house that recently became her showcase. She and curator Brian Kennedy – a formidable pair – had cajoled five independent galleries to bring their most exciting pieces into a joint show – over 200 objects by more than 75 artists from across the globe, to be called Crafting a Difference. “Yes, something of an exercise in collaboration,” says Shiro diplomatically.

Then lockdown struck and the show was put into mothballs. However the gallery called in experts to film a spectacular 3D presentation online which has been a great success with pushing 10,000 viewings.

But now the whole house is open for real until 30 April. And you have to see this if you possibly can. It’s magical both in the way it’s laid out, and the sophistication and breadth of the work, a brilliant blockbuster. The choreography is dramatic and enticing, a thrill through every doorway, and at every turn of the stair, as pieces nestle on half landings, cling to walls, escape onto balconies, then stand triumphantly in large groups that fill adjoining rooms. There are intriguing contrasts, and adventurous backgrounds, often bathed in abundant natural light.

The five galleries are fiercely idiosyncratic, each bringing spirit, conviction and authenticity. As always glass from Vessel bathes the soul in beauty. It’s exquisitely placed in windows, or mysteriously revealed in a back room. And I loved ceramics from MADEINBRITALY, with their touch of the surreal.

Also taking part are Caviliero Finn, who nurture new talent with love and an uncanny commercial prescience – their empathetic founders Juliana Cavaliero and Debra Finn met as art students themselves at Warwick University.

I’m proud of a VERY early plate I have by celebrated ceramicist Peter Ting, who set up his gallery Ting-Ying in 2016, in partnership with Ying Jian. They spotlight Blanc de Chine white porcelain produced in Dehua, China, since the 14th century, and also represent an impressive coterie of British makers. Finally, there is jaggedart, with off-piste painting and 3D works that include fragments of pottery, wood, bark, roots and leaves.

“We’ve aimed for an immersive experience,” says Shiro. “You feel surrounded by thousands and thousands of hours by hand, a message of human touch and togetherness – here is the dream way of reconnecting and cradling craft.” A huge hug of hope and who could resist?

Find more design/craft shows to visit here in a round up by the Crafts Council. And for an art show round-up visit the Guardian’s April picks.

Images - all photos by Barbara Chandler

Kate McGarry with works in the “Blue Jeans & Brown Clay” exhibition, including  Joachen Holz and Martino Gamper.

Max Lamb’s JB Blunk inspired chairs.

Visitors to “Internal Objects” by Rachel Whiteread at the Gagosian.

Views of “Crafting a Difference”: lighting by Vezzini & Chen over a display of ceramics (see virtual tour for more details).

Shiro Muchiri on the stairs.

Works by Emma Witter, Rosa Nguyen & Claudia Frignani.

Glass piece by Nine Casson McGarva.

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Liz Cooper


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