Saturday, 14 February 2015

Defying the black square

It was more a feeling of duty than any expectation of hedonistic delight that led me to the Whitechapel Gallery for its acclaimed exhibition Adventures of the Black Square -- succinctly described by Time Out as "a hip guide to abstract art". I did not expect to find gorgeous colour or tactile textiles, but they were there in glorious abundance; illustrating how such traditionally derided genres have managed to slip under the radar of the Fine Art Police to find a home among the most minimalist of modernists.

Don't panic, it's just a black square. 

As if to declare that we should not take the hardline minimalists too seriously, the Kazimir Malevich painting of 1915 that provided the starting point for the whole exhibition proved to be a pushover, not much more than postcard-sized and the anticipated formidably stark black and white looking distinctly grubby. And not even a square at that, but a "quadrilateral".  Pah!

Separated by just a few feet and only three years, was a colourful geometric composition, Untitled,  of 1918, 
 by a woman, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, in dyed pearl cotton cross-stitch! And from then on it just got better.

Here was a series by Andrea Buttner of 13 minimalist coloured squares on wooden stretchers from 2011, which on closer inspection proved to be fabric, each one representing the workwear of different jobs, from street sweepers to police officers. And over there was an inviting carpeted bench on which sprawled a gallery attendant, so that it was only later that I realised it was an artwork: Bench, 2014, by Andrea Zittel, which "investigates the legacy of minimalist sculptures by Donald Judd, using surface texture to connect formalism with lived reality". In other words, sod painting, I want a nice coloured rug to sit on.

Off at a bit of a textile-related tangent, was Bela Kolarova's marvelous assemblage of black snap fasteners on cardboard from 1964, revealing "the unexpected beauty of the domestic and the utilitarian". Not so unexpected if you're a textile artist, of course.

Here too was a real patchwork quilt - something that usually infuriates me when I find one in a fine art gallery, as it is often a poor relation of what can be seen in any half-way decent amateur quilt show. But this one was superb: simple squares but with an Amish-style conviction in hand-dyed kingfisher, teal and turquoise blues with olive and brown, and rust and black borders.  Having googled the Egyptian-Armenian artist Chant Avedissian, I want to know much more (although his own website is infuriating).

And now ta-dah! the piece that for me was worth the admission price alone: Serape, 2015, by Adrian Esparza, an artwork that excitingly seems to take a different shape in each gallery where it is shown. The Texas-based artist "deconstructs" - I word I usually abhor, so let's use "unravels" - a Mexican blanket to create a colourful geometric pattern of threads fixed to the wall by nails. It was the work nearest the exit, and inevitably I was running short of time, but it made my heart leap. 

Here, as a poor response to this exhibition but wanting to provide some pictures, are my own attempts at quilted minimalism: 

Please go to the exhibition, it is marvellous. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

WOW! Let's hear it for wild old women

Selfridges' window featuring Sue Kreitzman

What better way to entertain oneself on a grey, cold, drizzly late afternoon than to fight one's way along Oxford Street, dodging the tourist-tat stalls, kamikaze cycles and nose-to-tail buses spewing out the worst diesel pollution in the world (it's official) in order to stand and gawp at a group of old people behaving outrageously.

Outrageous, because they're refusing to conform to the stereotypes and are showing off in public - in the windows of Selfridges no less.

Molly Parkin's window

Each January, Selfridges' Bright Young Things has celebrated the rising stars from fashion, art, design and food. This year it decided - OMG! as the young media people may well have said - to celebrate instead 14 inspiring  Bright Old Things, who've "embraced a new vocation later in life". There's an architect turned topiarist, an actress who now designs furniture, a vlogger, and a "punk hero".

Sue Kreitzman's  window

Here too is the former journalist, fashion editor and erotic novelist and now painter  Molly Parkin, 83, once a wild young woman and now a wild old woman, known for her bohemian outfits and exotic turbans. Plus one of my favourite bright old things, the artist Sue Kreitzman who, according to the jewellery designer Tatty Devine, is leader of the anti-beige brigade.  Sue was one of the six wonderful older women, average age 80, featured in the Channel 4 documentary Fabulous Fashionistas and the founder of a group of like-minded artists, WOW! Wild Old women:  "We are loud, we are raucous and we are thrillingly, vividly visible. We are Outside Artists so we do exactly as we please." A fellow member is Lauren Shanley, who makes many of Sue's gorgeously overblown, bright and beautiful coats of many colours.

Zandra Rhodes at the Design Museum's Women Fashion Power

Make no mistake, these are powerful women. The current show at the Design Museum, Women Fashion Power: Not a multiple choice (until April 26) celebrates several more. Here is the doyenne of individual style, Zandra Rhodes  - still with bright pink hair at the age of 74. 

Camila Batmanghelidjh flares brightly among the little black power outfits

And among the little black dresses and power suits, here is Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the charity Kids Company, who describes on the label how her outfit, a glorious tangle of patterned fabrics and colour, including small, raw-edges patches sewn on by just a few stitches, was made. "Anything goes if it makes you happy. The kids gave us the scraps of fabrics and scarves as well as the brooch. We normally put everything on the floor and collage it." (She and Kirsty Wark, also featured, discuss how to dress with authority in The Independent.)

Scraps of fabric donated by her "kids" hang by a thread

These are women who refuse to disappear as they get older, who not only wear purple but fuchsia, emerald, scarlet, cerise, kingfisher, yellow and sky blue. With sequins and beads. Do a Google image search on their names as an instant antidote to the February blues and greys.

What are we to make of Selfridges' and Channel 4's sudden interest in the creative older woman, and of  Advanced Style, the photographic blog of older people's street fashion from which I suspect this trend has originated? Is it merely a passing tokenism? I don't know, but - like the old joke, "What do you call 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea?" - it's a good start.

P.S. I have just realised what has been niggling at me for 48 hours about Camila Batmanghelidjh's exhibit: She is a large woman, and that is part of her power. Her flamboyant outfits say in part: "I'm big and proud and I still want to be looked at." So why was her dress on a standard size model? (It was the same with Sue Kreitzman's mannequin in Selfridges' window.) Are fat wild old women a taboo too far?