The Art Diary May 2023

This May sees the launch of a major monograph, the first on Joe Tilson, published by Lund Humphries. To coincide with this, two major exhibitions of his work have opened at Cristea Roberts Gallery and Marlborough Gallery. Over 40 prints, tracing almost six decades, are on display, including early Pop artworks featuring Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh through to Tilson’s rejection of consumerism and consequent return to nature, the elements, mythology and ancient history.

Tilson, who is still working as a painter, printmaker and sculptor, turns 95 in August. He trained as a carpenter at 14 before attending art school in London with Frank Auerbach, David Hockney and Peter Blake. By 1970 Tilson had become dissatisfied with the consumer society that Pop Art had done so much to highlight and turned instead to cultural history. His interest and exploration of the enduring qualities of human civilisation and its greatest achievements are conveyed most passionately in his ongoing body of work, The Stones of Venice, which he began in 2007. Each print in the series depicts Venetian church façades paired with bold geometric patterns of the city’s stone and tiled walls and floors.

He also began to immerse himself more deeply in understanding our own nature and our place in the total environment of planet Earth. For the past 50 years, his work has brought to life a complex world of nature, ecology, and philosophy. Today we live in a time of urgent ecological concern, and Tilson’s art, now more than ever, fosters in us a deeper appreciation of the elements and symbols of the natural world. As he says, “Our imagination must be geared passionately to the universe – to nature. We must be always aware that we are part of the cycles of continual change in a thin breathing veil of air, water and earth, our temple sphere.”

Art Diary May 2023
Evelyn De Morgan, Gloria in Excelsis, 1893. Gold pigment and chalk on grey paper. Trustees of the De Morgan Foundation

Quodlibet is the first monograph published on the Scottish-born, London-based painter Alastair Gordon. Quodlibet includes over 160 paintings, drawings and documentational photographs, along with notes by Gordon himself. Gordon’s paintings bring the historic languages of genre painting and the quodlibet into a contemporary discourse that pushes the boundaries of realism, figuration and illusionism to focus on everyday moments. His work often elevates seemingly ordinary objects – feathers, matchsticks, postcards – allowing them to speak to wider concerns of beauty, truth, life and death.

In her introduction, Julia Lucero, Associate Director of Nahmad Projects, London, emphasises the importance of nature and meditation within Gordon’s practice. She explores the idea of ‘the axis mundi, that metaphysical and mystical connecting point where heaven meets Earth’ and the significance of quodlibet, a seventeenth-century trompe-l’oeil painting technique that Gordon favours, rendering brushstrokes invisible and affording everyday objects new significance, even ‘profound value’. In this way, humble objects such as a matchstick or paper aeroplanes are elevated to the realms of the divine.

Another excellent recent monograph is Dennis Creffield: Art and Life with a narrative that traces Creffield’s ‘Dickensian’ upbringing, formative experiences as a teenager under the tutelage of David Bomberg, conversion to Catholicism and award-winning years at the Slade. His body of work includes charcoal drawings of the 26 English medieval cathedrals which were shown to packed crowds in 13 cities. A selection of these were recently shown at the Portland Gallery, while his work is currently being shown at Belgrave St. Ives.

The cathedral drawings were originally an Arts Council commission from 1985 to draw every medieval Cathedral in England. On receiving the commission, Creffield acquired a camper van and took to the road, producing dozens of large-scale charcoal drawings and, when back in the studio, a small number of related oils. “No artist has ever before drawn all the English medieval cathedrals – not even Turner”, he wrote, “I’ve dreamed of doing so since I was 17 when as a student of David Bomberg, I drew and painted in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.” As a result, he gladly adopted the role of a latter-day pilgrim, taking with him, as his companions across the country, the 14th-century ascetic Mother Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value.

Ways of Life is the first biography of Kettle’s Yard creator Jim Ede, a visionary who helped shape twentieth-century British art. The artists with which he engaged represented a thrilling tipping point in twentieth-century modernism: a new guard, a new way of making and seeing, and a new way of living with art. They include William Congdon, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Barbara Hepworth, David Jones, Henry Moore, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Richard Pousette-Dart and Alfred Wallis. Ede recognised in each of the artists he championed something common and kindred, some quality of light and life and line.

His vision continues to influence the way we understand art and modern living. He was a man of extraordinary energies: a collector, dealer, fixer, critic and, above all, friend to artists. For Ede, works of art were friends, and art could be found wherever you looked – in a pebble, feather or seedhead. Art lived, and a life without art, beauty, friendship and creativity was a life not worth living. Art was not for galleries alone, and it certainly wasn’t only for the rich. At Kettle’s Yard, he opened his home and his collection to all comers. He showed generations of visitors that learning to look could be a whole new way of life.

Michael Petry’s In League with Devils documents his work from 2012 – 2023 and is released in conjunction with his solo exhibition at the Dadian in Washington DC. The book includes a foreword by Stephen Fry, who writes: “Michael Petry celebrates the ceremonial, memorialises the mythical and acknowledges, honours and explores the deeper spirits within us whom we all feel and hear yet have always found hard to name. Our gods and our devils.”

With his recent work, Petry describes himself as “an archaeologist sifting through the sands of time to uncover the old stories, the old myths, the old beliefs on which modern believers act.” Among the now mythologised gods of old his work explores are Marduk and Thor, Brigit and Ra, Janus and Seth. Now they are no longer held in the respect they were, he asks, “does that stop them from being gods?” “Is it simply time that morphs a god into a myth, and if so, what of the current gods and devils? Will they, too, just become stories told around a campfire?”

De.Coded, the latest Human Atlas from British artist and photographer Marcus Lyon – a Human Atlas of Silicon Valley – has recently gone to press. De.Coded is another deep-dive exploration of social change in our times by exploring 101 remarkable change-makers of Silicon Valley. Lyon has explained that his Human Atlas’ are social impact art projects that bring together a specified number of nominated change agents to tell a deeper story about how we self-author and co-author, a more hopeful future through portraits, interviews, soundscapes and DNA mapping.

The Art Diary May 2023
Hilma af Klint, The Evolution, The WUS Seven-Pointed Star Series, Group VI, No.15, 1908. Courtesy Hilma af Klint

Moving from books to exhibitions, Anne Redpath is another, like Joe Tilson, whose oeuvre includes church paintings. As a child, Redpath attended Hawick Congregational Church and was fascinated by the ornamentation of the Catholic Church. Although not religious, she delighted in the rich colourings of gold, silver and purple and in the precious decoration of altarpieces. Her church interiors, such as The Valley of San Martino di Lota, Corsica (1950-1960, Laing Art Gallery) and Woman Praying before an Altar, Spain (c.1956, The Fleming Collection), feature in Anne Redpath and her Circle at The Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Like Tilson with his rejection of consumerism, graphic artist Micah Purnell also questions the freedom that consumerism appears to offer and uses pithy one-liners to cut through consumerism. Working together with ceramicist Rachel Ho and painter Orla Gilkeson, the three will leave 300 beautiful ‘gifts to the city’ around Cathedral Quarter in Belfast on the last weekend of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival to find and keep, to remind of our need to embrace our stories of loss and self-worth. Each gift will be accompanied by an invitation to share anonymously how the artworks resonated with those who find them at www.gifttothecity.org where stories of difficulty and hope can be read as the artworks are found.

Gilkeson is a contemporary Northern Irish artist whose work explores memory and a sense of place, often through abstracted landscape paintings. Ho is a ceramicist whose work is inspired by Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese method of mending broken pottery with gold, resulting in more precious pots. Purnell is an award-winning artist and designer renowned for his typographic work that took over Wembley Park during the Euros to bring the humanities to public spaces. Gift to the City is a Passion Art project dedicated to their late friend Lesley Sutton, who passed away shortly after Gift to the City in Manchester in the summer of 2022. Sutton founded Passion Art to build bridges between sacred and secular spaces through art. Gift to the City aims to help people feel seen and less alone, to recognise that all have daily battles and to create a sense of hope and healing.

Artist Jake Lever has been involved in another project that created a sense of hope and healing. In May 2021, Lever was invited to create an installation for Coventry Cathedral’s Chapel of Gethsemane of Do the Little Things boats. These came from a project involving the posting of tiny vessels gilded in gold leaf to destinations around the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic. The installation of these boats at Coventry Cathedral coincided with a spotlight loan from The British Museum called Crossings: community and refuge. The loan included a Lampedusa cross, made from the remnants of a boat which carried refugees that was wrecked near the Italian island of Lampedusa, close to the coast of Tunisia in 2013, and a display of 12 tiny boats from Syrian-born Issam Kourbaj’s series Dark Water, Burning World. The Lampedusa cross symbolises the plight of refugees across the world and was made by the island’s carpenter, Francesco Tuccio, prompted by the tragic death of 311 migrants when the boat sank. Made from repurposed bicycle mudguards tightly packed with burnt matches, Kourbaj’s artwork represents the fragile vessels refugees use to make their perilous voyages to respond to the ongoing tragedy in Syria.

Jill Cook, Keeper Department of Britain, Europe & Prehistory at the British Museum, received the Lampedusa cross in the post from Tuccio. It became the final acquisition by the museum before Neil McGregor retired as Director in 2015. Cook was in Coventry Cathedral to oversee the installation of the Crossings: community and refuge when she decided to acquire one of the Do the Little Things boats for the permanent collection of the British Museum. The museum has collected objects that reveal how we navigated the Covid-19 pandemic, and Cook felt that the Do the Little Things project told an important story of the human connection in extraordinary times.

Evelyn De Morgan was part of the third wave of Pre-Raphaelitism and used her art as a tool to express her socialist, spiritualist and feminist values, all key themes in her later paintings. De Morgan’s mother-in-law, a social reform campaigner and a practising Spiritual medium encouraged her to use her pictures to present her spiritual ideals. Evelyn De Morgan: The Gold Drawings at Leighton House explores her practice, learnt from Edward Burne-Jones, of drawing in brilliant gold pigment on dark grey woven paper. Using solid blocks of pure gold pigment and grinding them to a powder, she invented crayons and paints that were then specifically applied to the production of her drawings. Featuring angels, saints, biblical figures and mythological deities, these drawings celebrate those who are in some way superhuman or close to godly. Depicting her subjects in gold suggests De Morgan made the drawings to possess talismanic qualities. Preparatory drawings for the figure of St. Francis made in pastel on paper are also included and showcase De Morgan’s working method and skill as a draftswoman.

Spiritualism also influenced Hilma af Klint, whose works are on display at Tate Modern alongside those of Piet Mondrian. Independent of one another, af Klint in Sweden, Georgiana Houghton in England, and Emma Kunz in Switzerland each understood themselves as mediums who captured the messages they received in their works of art. Their early abstract works preceded the abstract art of Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, both influenced, as was af Klint, by Theosophy. Across Europe at that time, artists and thinkers like af Klint and Mondrian turned to spiritual movements like Theosophy and anthroposophy to reconcile religion with the modern world. Tate Modern is currently showcasing key examples of af Klint’s secret body of mystical paintings, which she insisted should not be seen in public for at least 20 years after her death, such as The Evolution 1908 and the Tree of Knowledge 1913-15 series. Their exhibition also explores Mondrian’s spiritualist beliefs, including how his geometric, angular and minimal brand of painting was designed to transmit ideas about the essential reality of the universe.

Ervin Bossányi: Stained Glass Artist will explore the art of the Hungarian artist in the collections of St Peter’s College Oxford and the stained glass of the College Chapel. Bossányi left Germany for Britain before the Second World War, aware that his family and work would be under threat had he stayed. He joined the large number of émigré artists arriving in Britain, many of whom were Jewish, many of whom explored spirituality within their work, and many of whom would, like Bossányi, receive church commissions in the post-War period. Among his peers in some of these respects were the muralist Hans Feibusch, mosaicist Georg Mayer-Marten, sculptor Ernst Müller-Blensdorf, ceramicist Adam Kossowski, and painter Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. In his life and art, Bossányi fused influences from Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism to create a vision of harmonious, unified human societies that were at one with the natural world. This is a profound and profoundly moving vision of life based both on his experience of peasant life in Hungary and the influence of the art of non-European civilisations. It was a vision forged in a time of great conflict and division, which had a significant personal impact on Bossányi.

Finally, The Arts Club has an exhibition of early paintings by acclaimed Iranian-American artist Manoucher Yektai made between 1960-1963, following the artist’s move to New York. By this stage in his career, Yektai had, through earlier visits to New York, been introduced to Abstract Expressionism and its key painters such as Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis and Jackson Pollock. His paintings oscillate between figuration and abstraction, not unlike artists such as de Kooning. In this period, Yektai was achieving a heavily impastoed effect, and the canvases at The Arts Club are filled with sweeping, gestural textures that epitomise his distinct approach to abstraction and remarkable creative freedom. Yektai was also profoundly influenced by his love of poetry, with the Persian poet Rumi being key among those he often referenced in painterly form. Art historians of this period have more recently widened the scope of their enquiry to embrace artists of different genders, nationalities, and ethnicities – bringing to light a richer, radical and more nuanced breadth in post-war abstraction of which Yektai is a part, as are the Abstract Expressionists that Ede championed such as Congdon and Pousette-Dart.

Joe Tilson, Marco Livingstone, Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd, 1 May 2023 (ISBN: 9781848226197) Read More

Alastair Gordon: Quodlibet, Anomie Publishing, 23 May 2023 (ISBN: 978-1-910221-48-8) Read More

Dennis Creffield: Art and Life, Richard Cork, Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd, 4th April 2022 (ISBN: 9781848224742)

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Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists, Laura Freeman, 2023 (ISBN: 978-1787331907)

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In League with Devils, Michael Petry, MOCA London and The Dadian Gallery, July 1, 2023 (ISBN: 978-1-912800-09-4).

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Anne Redpath and her Circle, The Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 20 May – 5 November 2023

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Gift to the City, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast, 6 – 7 May 2023 – 

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Do The Little Things boat by Jake Lever – Read More

Evelyn de Morgan, The Gold Drawings, Leighton House, 11 March – 27 August

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Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life, Tate Modern, 20 April – 3 September 2023

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Ervin Bossányi: Stained Glass Artist, St Peter’s College, Oxford, 12 May to 26 May 2023

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Manoucher Yektai, The Arts Club, London, 1 May ­– 3 September 2023

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