Friday, May 22, 2009

The New Whitechapel

The Whitechapel has been lotteryfurbed. Nearly 20 million quid later the place is twice the size having expanded into the beautiful old library building next door. There's a big survey of Isa Genzken; I think its safe to say I responded to her early work better as I enjoyed the work downstairs and not the more recent work upstairs; I especially enjoyed the paintings; flat, explorations of surface in emerald greens, the paint having being dragged with some sort of squeegee over canvas laid flat and fixed on the rough unfinished concrete floor of the studio; catching the sudden jarrings of pattern in the flaws and shapes. They are strangely beautiful. The problem of making sense of surface and space continues in the concrete casts of non-space (fragments of the inside of a cupboard space or room), and the tall Manhattan skyscraper sculptures in coloured -deco-like resins and glass inspired by Manhattan skyscapers; the city also presented as models and scrapbooks - an investigation of place.

There is also an embarrassingly small show (given the strength of connection) of Gertler, Rosenberg, Epstein, Bomberg et all called The Whitechapel Boys; a tapestry Guernica in cow-muck sludge by Polish artist Goshka Macuga, fitting as the Whitechapel was the first and only UK exhibition of Guernica; however the colours are pretty grim: look instead at the vitrine of historical ephemera concerning the picture: - high-powered correspondence between the then owners, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Whitechapel Gallery’s requests to borrow the picture; I enjoyed Picasso's emphatic non communicated in brusque terms; this all long prior to the work being released to Spain in 1981. There’s a rotatation of Jurgen Teller portraits in the Lobby part of the John Kobal Award (one of which is a supremely unkind portrait of my friend David H half asleep and covered in fag-ash); two projects that plug into the neighbouring territory:- Social Sculpture, a sort of noticeboard of place and belonging, and Minerva Cuevas' S.COOP, a 'cultural experiment' exploring notions of community, commerce and exchange by way of a minted coin (the S.COOP) that can be exchanged for white ice-cream in Wentworth Street.

However be that as it may, the real leaps of artistic joy are to be had in Passports, a tiny show of a tiny selection of the British Council collection; an little known and misunderstood organisation that exists to promote British culture aboard forging international links (one of its main jobs is the Brit component of the Venice biennale). The title refers to the document accompanying each of the works setting out their foreign lendings and it is the first of five plunderings of the British Council collection of some 8500 (8500!) works, generally bought from Brit-trailblazers on the up. The show includes a superb Frank Auerbach, with not a single dull or wasted mark, a slab of hard-won Kossoff, a great Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, and a great 60’s Hockney. There’s also a Peter Doig but you can’t have everything. It has been curated by Michael Craig-Martin, who also used the curation to launch a small attack on the British Council’s current lack of international movement and visability in The Observer (‘We must start sending our great art around the world again’ 29th March 2009); the comments taken on board, wrist duly slapped etc as reported in this months Art Monthly. I’ve visited a few times and I’m ashamed to say on my first visit I was in such a hurry to see my favourite Gilbert & George that I practically ignored Isa Genzken; racing through the galleries on a mission to see Intellectual Depression from 1980; that great, humanoid tree, caught in twisted angst against the dead-yellow ground; a summing up of mental exhaustion. In fact the room is a triumph; its just such a shame it’s such a small show small selection of a great collection; my overriding feeling is that Isa Genzken should have been given the downstairs space only, with the Passports given the entire upstairs for a mammoth celebration of a great collection of great work that is rarely seen en masse. Surely that would have been a far more fitting opening show for this new expanded public space?

British Council

Whitechapel Gallery

Michael Craig-Martin in The Observer