Exhibitions

David Surman - Sirens

13 September - 26 October 2019

Sim Smith is delighted to present 'Sirens' the debut solo exhibition by British artist David Surman and the first solo presentation at the gallery. 

Private View, 12th September 6 - 9pm.

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After the Age of Innocence

Just as the painter touches his painting, so, it may be imagined, does the painting touch him. The fundamentally reciprocal dimension of touch encourages us to consider the painting itself as the agent of the process, and to imagine how this interactive object behavesrather than merely what it looks like.
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth

There are works on canvas, both large and small. … In these, the colours are unapologetically raw and pure, but never lurid or ugly. In fact, their intensity is surprisingly muted. There is no traditional modelling or finessing of volumes, either, only blocky shapes composed of rough-hewn fragments that exist – somewhat precariously – in a nervous, but nevertheless entirely stable, tension. Contours are sometimes hard and sharp. At other times, they are ragged or fuzzy. Forms are little more than rapidly scrawled hieroglyphics, crude signifiers in a language spoken only by this work, here and now. There are dribbles and spatters, blobs and flecks, as well as twitchy ribbons and wobbly slivers of molten paint. And, as if that were not enough, all manner of silky veneers and wispy veils. A crow bursts forth from a fistful of splintery feathers. A puppy sheepishly emerges from the union of several otherwise nondescript pools of solid pigment. A pair of warring cats arise from a welter of sinewy streaks that evoke bolts of lightning.

There are works on paper, too.… In these, we find dots and dashes of every kind, as well as lines that refuse to fully enclose figures and lines that gingerly garnish them with texture. Everything vibrates or pulsates, wriggles or jiggles. Volumes are implied, but reluctantly, and incompletely, such that flesh turns fiery and skin turns airy. Bodies hum and crackle with a delirious energy as they invade, and are invaded by, the space around them. Every graphic signifier in this metamorphic cosmos is either a spark or a flame, a breeze or a gust. This is an intoxicatingly elemental bestiary.

* * *

Over the past year or so, Surman’s work has undergone an electrifying transformation. It has become braver, and bolder, in every respect Animals, which previously made only sporadic appearances in his oeuvre, recently become his principle subject, encouraging him to explore their representational possibilities more broadly and, in turn, more deeply. At the same time, his gestural style has acquired a sketchier muscularity and a cheekier high-spiritedness – without, it must be stressed, any loss of pictorial exactitude or emotional delicacy. On the contrary, this new, strikingly exuberant carnality of touch is tempered by a technical elegance and expressive tenderness that reflect his ample, unforced sensitivity as both an artist and a person. Likewise, the material intelligence on display in this latest volley of work is testament to his wide-ranging erudition and unstinting reflexiveness, which everywhere underpin, but nowhere dominate or overwhelm, his images. The upshot of these developments is a profusion of marvellously varied surfaces that are not only more animated, but also more animatethan before. To those aware of Surman’s past endeavours as an animator, as well as his abiding compassion for animals, none of this will come as a surprise. Indeed, it will no doubt be understood as the ecstatic culmination of an often-gruelling quest in search of a “knowing” sincerity.

What is truly remarkable, though, is how Surman arranges for the processof this seeking to remain vividly inscribed in the surfaces of his paintings, drawings and prints. In part, he achieves this by working so quickly, and so decisively, that the freshness and liveliness of his initial marks cannot possibly be weakened, muddied or erased by second thoughts and corrections. Speed, however, is just one factor in the equation. He also relies on being able to spontaneously, and definitively, synthesise a range of conceptual and sensorial impulses without – and this is the hard part – ever allowing one tendency to override the other. As ideas and instincts converge and collide, surfaces wracked and scarred by conflicting discourses begin to congeal and settle. This violence and its echoes is, of course, profoundly joyful – and, I think, very beautiful. 

* * *

In her book The Painter’s Touch: Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard (2018), Ewa Lajer-Burcharth pinpoints an identical set of objectives and manoeuvres in relation to artists of the French Rococo: who, she argues, considered individuality ‘not as a “natural” effect of artistic talent but as a self-aware pursuit manifest in specific pictorial strategies and modes of operation.’ Perhaps this is why, in Surman’s seething menagerie, no animal can be still – or, for that matter, stilled. As his brothers and sisters in arms, they refract his own desire to avoid being forever fixed, either in life or in art. Indeed, for him, this is the essence of creaturely – and creative – vitality: to remain fluid … and mobile. 

Interestingly, Surman cites Théodore Géricault and Francisco Goya, artists for whom Romanticism provided even greater opportunities to expand on the eighteenth century’s presciently modern ‘embrace of materiality’ and flamboyant obsession with “deep” surfaces. Drawing on these (and other) historical points of reference, Surman’s thoroughly contemporary practice also exhibits a ‘tactile involvement’ – or ‘corporeal engagement’ – with surfaces, which are treated as fluid zones of encounter, where history and the present, knowledge and instinct, truth and doubt, animal and human can freely intersect, intermingle and interact. In this sense, his artistic authenticity resides not so much in his gestural “simplicity”, but in his acknowledgement of just how impossible it is to be innocentlysimple with respect to one’s gestural stratagems.

© Lucio Crispino (2019)

Sandra Lane, Bradley Wood - Trophy

13 July - 10 August 2019

Private View, 13th July 3 - 6pm

Sandra Lane (b. 1954, UK), Bradley Wood (b. 1970, Canada)

This two-person exhibition explores the use of the trophy, its associations and narratives. From the celebratory to the unassuming, this exhibition surveys its various guises, through fascination and fantasy.

A trophy in its basic sense is a reminder of an achievement, a memory, memento, commemoration, proof of a conquest or goal. Originally taken from the Greek word Tropaion, it referred to arms, property but also humans and body parts. Our connection to a trophy may have happened in the past, be happening in real time or can even await an event or happening. 

Neither artist deals with the representation of a stark reality in their work, instead trophies appear consistently through a veil of imagination or memory. Truth and how we remember it, how we perceive it and depict it effects how we tell stories. Our relationship to time and the effect it has on us is complex.

Sandra Lane’s work looks back in time, at the body, at place and at memories you can feel and taste. She sculpts and moulds clay with great personal insight and emotional force. Lane conjures memories from human and organic forms massaged and pinched with her hands; big bows and ruffles slicked with sticky glaze, tumbling wigs that sit like hard icing on top of a cake, heavy platform shoes and broken cigarettes in pastel hues. Her work stems from the autobiographical but also from a sense of an expectation from society, expectations that are placed on women and girls from an early age. 

Bradley Wood looks at society through a different lens, he is always looking in, a voyeur of the domestic and fictional constructed from his imagination. His paintings in heavy oil invite speculation and intrigue. He opens doors to worlds where we can look at willing subjects as well as those caught in private or intimate moments without their permission. Like an unseen photographer at a party or a surveillance camera, he watches over the action and positions the viewer in the role of a ‘peeping tom’, asking questions about ‘who was looking and why?’ and ‘who else is there that we cannot see?’

Both artists consistently use trophies in their work; body parts and organic forms shape the structures of Lane’s trophies as mementos of body and place, whereas status symbols, people, relationships and hunks of meat act as the ultimate trophies in Wood’s domestic scenes. The exhibition looks at our internal dialogue, our relationship to times past but also to expectation and imagination; to wants, voyeurism and desire. It looks at the delight we take in the representations of the trophy, the breaking of moral taboos and the complex narratives at play about our connection to people, places and objects on a psychological and emotional level.

 

Trophies have a dark past: in ancient warfare, all over the world, a trophy was anything plundered, severed or stolen from the defeated and deceased. A scalp, a skull, an arm or a leg would do nicely as a gruesome display of victory and macho power. The traditional cup-shaped trophy derives from Ancient Greece and Rome too: at sporting events, the winner was awarded a prize of olive oil, in a vase or chalice-shaped vessel. Christiano Ronaldo - a very trophied man - when receiving the oversized trophy for best player at Serie A in May, struggled to keep a grip on the thing, swinging it into members of his family in front of the world’s media who were there to capture the blunder so it could be memed into infinity. 

Perhaps, like me, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “trophy” are not the awards on a mantel but the misogynistic term, “trophy wife”. This association is also shared by Sandra Lane, who became an artist to “attempt to escape pleasing others”. The trophy wife -- the young, decorative woman who exists purely to please a man and reaffirm his status -- is a notion Lane grew up with, and one she finds herself revisiting now. 

While making the sculptures for Trophy Lane went back to her early teens, remembering the heavy make-up she would use to “redraw my face”. Eyes, lips, lashes, bows and empty wigs - based on a 1960s Mary Quant poster - are crafted in ceramic with plenty of irony. A giant pair of platform heels - far too big and clumsy for any foot - are particularly compelling in their overdone femininity, an allure that is intensely visceral. Conscious of our desire as women to perform femininity through consuming while simultaneously critiquing the objects we dress up in, Lane says, “I feel I am playing with a kind of Mrs Potato Head which is a way of thinking about identity and to what extent it is connected with how one looks.” 

Looks can be deceiving, but how you look matters. No one observes this more shrewdly than Bradley Wood in his lush oil paintings; recalling the woozy perspectives of Kirchner, his decadent scenes take place in the fictional private residences of the elite. It’s as though you’re there, but someone has slipped something into your drink - or perhaps you arrived on LSD. Either way, you, the viewer, are not part of this world, Wood places you where he is, a voyeur who peeps at parties with “a complicated spectrum of feelings toward the people I paint. Love, hatred, empathy, admiration, jealousy all makes the narrative more interesting.”

Wood grew up in a small town in Western Canada and had never encountered wealth, even from a distance. It was only in his early adulthood, when he went to study in Switzerland, that he began to enter the world of the rich, and later in San Francisco and New York “witnessing firsthand the crazy sudden wealth and conspicuous extravagance of the late 1990’s economic boom, followed by the sudden bust.” 

The status of these extravagant characters is evident, their sense of achievement displayed through contemporary trophies - designer furniture, pricey artwork, expensive clothes, exotic food. But they are also vulnerable, made fragile by Wood’s heady gaze: they clutch to their chaise longues and their champagne glasses, reassured of their success by their chandeliers, but they are warped, at times, even repulsive. “A part of us wants to be in it while another part is horrified that we want to be in it”, Wood explains.

Each of Wood’s scenes is created with diligent details: the personalities and idiosyncracies of his imagined characters constructed through their belongings. In this way, Wood touches on a deeper truth about trophies; that we are what we own. We all have a little bit of Dorian Gray in us, after all.

A trophy is a symbol of desire and dominance; it is a way of peacocking our performances. In our digital age, trophies may now even be as intangible as Instagram posts, but they are still a part of our daily existence, tiny triumphs we lord over each other. Through the space their work creates, Lane and Wood reveal the dark nature of our competitive culture. As Wood puts it: “it’s a bit like being on a merry-go-round. Enjoying the ride, but not staying on it too long or I’ll start to feel sick.”

Charlotte Jansen, June 2019

They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies

06 June - 06 July 2019

Private View, 6th of June 6-8pm

This group exhibition explores how artists depict the body and how it performs in an age where we not only want, but expect, intimacy and access on a daily basis. From daily rituals to sell out performances, this group show asks the question ‘how does art portray the body now?’.

An all female show, the exhibition features artworks by Jenna Gribbon (b. 1978, US), Aneta Kajzer (b. 1989, Germay), Kemi Onabule (b. 1995, UK) and Anne Ryan (b. 1964, Ireland).

Combining original paintings that uncover the body; it’s capabilities, it’s feelings and fancies, this exhibition considers where we draw the line between function and fiction.

The selection of paintings and sculpture pursue a comprehensive and complex portrayal of the body and performance. From the explicit to the self conscious, some bodies are brazen in their accuracy and others, reveal themselves more slowly through layers of apparent abstraction. Enduring dialogues abound; gestural negotiations, intricate details and intimate moments play out under the heavy observation of the artist or the voyeuristic gaze of the onlooker. Together, these artists open windows into new worlds whilst reflecting accurately on our own in an inquisitive yet knowing portrayal of the body and its performance.

 

They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies and You Watch

            Who are youEnglish language only knows one you. It’s written in lower case and it’s short form is the letter U. It can be you or the person that reads this right after you, and it can also mean you both. English you doesn’t differ between singular and plural. I admire you. It can be directed to a single person as well as to a whole population. If you believe, you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.* English you doesn’t differ between strangers and friends. It disguises social relationships and is the only language in the world that does so. But it was not until the late 17th century that this pronoun sneaked its way into the double role in which we use currently use it. As with many other European languages, English used to distinguish between formal and casual forms of address. While the pronoun thou was used to express familiarity and intimacy, you indicated distance and respect. However, the individual use of these words, was not only an indication of the interpersonal relationship, but also of class affiliation. So, what does it mean if our language shifts and there’s only one you left now? Do we share the same respect for everybody? Have we overcome our differences? Are we all equal? If language were a real indicator of social and cultural change, all our answers would have to be yes – wouldn’t they?

            In the title of the group exhibition ‘They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies’ at Sim Smith it is precisely this you that is missing. Instead the title creates a duality between a narrator and its opponents, between emotions on the one hand and physicality on the other. It’s a division which places the subject in opposition to its environment and is also the modus operandi of the invited artists. Despite their different visual languages, all artists share a common interest in the exposition of the body and its perception in an ever-changing world. This discourse has a great tradition in the arts – from Leonardo da Vinci’s precise examination of the body in the Vitruvian Man(1490) to the Body Art movement of the 1960s with female artists like Valie Export or Marina Abramovic – and has always evolved along accompanying and changing media and technologies. The exhibition ‘They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies’ challenges this history by looking at the body through the eyes of four female painters who reflect shifting perceptions and presentations in an era of permanent performance. While the title of the exhibition anticipates the dichotomy between the artists and their environment, the perspective of the viewer is missing. Your perspective. They catch feelings, I catch bodies and you watch. 

            Similar to the reader-response criticism in literary theory which recognises the reader as an active agent who possibly completes the work through interpretation, I would argue that the viewer also carries out the same role in this exhibition. Not only do they physically relate to the works, they also assume the position of the voyeur. That this role is crucial is particularly evident in the works of Jenna Gribbon. In her paintings she often shows women topless, reminiscent of the well-known self-portrait of surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning. In contrast to the male gaze of the female body which tends to objectify it, both Gribbon and Tanning portray a female consciousness of full autonomy. While Siri Hustvedt’s essay ‘A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women’** examines the perceptual and gender distortions that influence our judgement of art and generates a corresponding meta-gaze loop in the title, Gribbon creates a similar loop in her paintings. She enjoys shifting the perspective and letting the viewer see from her point of view. In other paintings, she uses figures from the back and reflects their role as projection surface for the viewer that is linked to the symbolism of desire and longing.

            Anne Ryan also appreciates changing the perspective of the viewer, thus even spatially including them in her works. Her paintings break free from the canvas and find their way onto the surfaces of steel or cardboard. In this state they also detach themselves from the wall and pose as free objects in space, thereby exploring the interface between sculpture and painting. This formal liberation is also mirrored in Ryan’s subject. Her cut-outs feature bodies caught in motion that melt together. The individual seems to dissolve in the collective. But what first implies intimacy soon fades when one looks more closely at the composition. The multi-perspectival character of the cut-outs allows her to create additional images on the backside in order to construct a varied narration. This playfulness invites the viewer to engage with the works, move around them and discover the unknown. 

            Aneta Kajzer proves that painting can not only deal with the body as a subject, but also involves the physical labour of the artists themselves. She begins to fill the canvas with rapid applications of colour in an intuitive process, feeling her way gradually towards the motifs through these initial movements in which each brushstroke is triggered by the one preceding. She blurs the traditional categorisation of abstract and figurative painting and same can also be said of her motifs, which never claim one single interpretation alone but are characterised by the interplay of opposites. She paints figures with deformed limbs or without a clear gender attribution. Kajzer’s works elude normative conceptions, raise questions about the society in which we find ourselves, and present us with its abysses and absurdities.

            The question of representation is also central to the work of Kemi Onabule. As a British artist of Nigerian and Greek heritage, her visual language draws on several influences but still has its very unique style. In her colourful paintings, not only do different bodies meet, but they also interact with their surroundings which feature palms, monstera plants and grasses. Contrary to the idea that nature protects us from the alien gaze and was used in Ancient Greece to cover the genitals, Onabule uses it primarily as an exciting setting to fully expose her figures. While she often paints black bodies with concrete hairstyles and identification features, many of the painted bodies are kept in bright colours such as red or green, have no special individual characteristics and no clear gender. Onabule’s paintings defeat the lack of representation of different bodies by painting bodies that could be of anyone. I’m gonna look for my body. I’ll be back real soon.*** Similar to the lyrics of Solange’s song ‘Weary’, these paintings ask us to question social hierarchies based on race, gender and sexuality. 

Carina Bukuts, May 2019

* Theresa May, Speech at the Conservative Party Conference, 2016
** Siri Hustvedt, ‘A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women’, 2016
*** Solange, ‘Weary‘, 2016

 

What Kind Of Spirit Is This?

02 May - 01 June 2019

The inaugural show at the gallery, this exhibition casts a celebratory and inquisitive eye over painting today. Combining original work by eight artists concerned with employing paint to express their own particular narratives, this exhibition centers on the power of painting in the digitally connected 21st Century.

Curated by one of the artists on Smith’s roster, David Surman, the exhibition asks the question “Why paint? Who needs painting?” in a world that seems to have evolved so far beyond the medium in terms of artistic possibilities.

The exhibition features artworks from Matija Bobičić (b. 1987, Slovenia), Tim Garwood (b. 1984, UK), Kate Groobey (b. 1979, UK), Aly Helyer (b. 1965, UK), Doppel Kim (b. 1985, Korea), Sandra Lane (b. 1954, UK), Jonathan McCree (b. 1963, UK), Daisy Parris (b. 1993, UK), Maïa Régis (b.1995, France).

Featuring paintings and painted ceramics, the works pursue an array of ideas from the historical and architectural to human existence and identity. The challenges and interplays of paint are seen through visceral brushstrokes in a preoccupation with surface in some works and with subject in others. Some subjects are crudely drawn and almost childlike whilst others dissolve and disappear under layers of texture. Gestural figuration to total abstraction, the paint transforms, delights and teaches us about this new energy in a snapshot of the quality of the painting landscape today.

 

“I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms.” Ovid, The Metamorphoses

At thirteen minutes “Misty” is the longest track on the tenth studio album “50 Words For Snow” by English singer-songwriter Kate Bush. In an interview with Mike Ragogna about the song she explains, “The subject matter is sort of just about a girl who builds a snowman, and later the snowman comes to visit her in her bedroom.” This fantasy raises a question, what are snowmen? A kind of votive folk sculpture to a household demi-god? An act of figurative making, performed in order to properly receive the sky’s gift of heavy snow. 

In the Roman poet Ovid’s epic “The Metamorphoses”, the God Jupiter transforms himself into all manner of protean forms in order to stalk, seduce and abduct the adored being. The imagery of “Misty” recalls Jupiter appearing as a fog around the mortal Io, or as a shower of gold to Danae (“My bedroom fills with falling snow / Should be a dream but I’m not sleepy.”) Ovid’s Jupiter is an all-powerful aggressor, who encompasses and possesses fully those he desires. The Gods stare down from heaven at the mortal world without being seen. Jupiter gazes at his quarries with anonymity and absolute authority, instilling fear at the moment his godly presence is revealed. 

In “Misty” Bush changes the power dynamic in this supernatural encounter; the snowman is presented as somewhat impotent, an unstable presence in retreat (“I can feel him melting in my hand.”) The heat of human blood both makes and undoes him. Melting snow takes on the mythical idea of metamorphosis, the familiar becomes transcendent. She receives the visitation of the snowman having created him in the usual manner, but observes and embraces him without fear, describing closely his melting form, lending an urgency to the encounter. In the middle of the track, Bush poses a plaintive question rich in irony, “What kind of spirit is this?” Does the girl wonder about the supernatural power that gives vitality to her snowman? Or does she wonder about the fleeting love that might be a dream?  The ontological question gives way to further mysteries; he disappears (perhaps melting completely) leaving only residues, leaves, “...bits of twisted branches and frozen lawn.” 

Ovid himself understood the persistence of his poetic work, the final line of “The Metamorphoses” reads, “Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam- I shall live.” There is a connection, perhaps, between the mythic life represented in art and its continued importance in our lives, tales of spontaneous change and liveliness, holy moments and material chemistry. 

It is no coincidence that so many cutting-edge life science and biogenetics companies take their names from the Greco-Roman pantheon. We no longer stand atop the accumulated certainties of science and philosophy, but instead slide continuously, in process, with the rapidly changing propositions of every field of knowledge. Painting, that played such a central role in the imagining of the human, now receives and transmits images to better communicate the post-human; the networked, the cloned, the augmented, the virtualised. How can painting express the subjectivity of those who thrive in the greater space of online culture, capture the abstraction of precarious life and work, bring together the contradictory beauty of humanity’s waste products? 

These endeavours bring us full circle back to the protean uncertainties of Ovid’s world. What kind of spirit is this?The old categories no longer hold sway in the way they once did; can we speak of figuration and abstraction as meaningfully opposing poles in a world of genetic sequencing and quantum physics? The truth is in retreat, and revealed to be an historical contingency. In their place new urgencies grow, laying roots that tear at the fixed borders of established thought. As we learn more and more about our precarious shared existence on the planet, the dominance of the human must necessarily be called into question. We find ourselves in a moment of intercession, searching for shapes to receive our spirit, to show our liveliness within a troubled world. 

Painting carries on, in spite of everything, a post-everything endeavour. As Isabelle Graw has argued, paintings are an indexical expression of the liveliness of the painter, they capture vitality in their structure, taking on a kind of subjectivity beyond “aura”, beyond simple objecthood. In the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the charisma of painting, objects that thrum with living energy, gain a renewed relevance. Each spirited gesture recorded on the canvas support adds up to a gestalt phenomena felt in the mind, a living spirit, that reminds us of Ovid’s Pygmalion, whose sculpture sprang to life. 

In each of these exhibited works I have hoped to bring together some aspect of this spirit.

David Surman, April 2019

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