Art Rooms 2019
Meliá White House Hotel, 11th to 13th January
Art Rooms promised to be extra special for me this year. Having reviewed the exhibitions in the last three years, I was kindly invited by event director Cristina Cellini Antonini to be part of the selection panel for 2019. This was a tremendous honour and one which I accepted in a nano second. Art Rooms is a superb, innovative organisation that consistently sets high standards in the world of contemporary art. Grazie mille for this wonderful invitation.
The Meliá White House Hotel in Regents Park is now very familiar and always splendid. 71 rooms were taken over for the weekend by 71 artists from Europe (still including the UK!), the Americas, and the Middle and Far East. Several other artists had single work displays in the corridors. All together, this was a far reaching collection offering a diverse range of artistic genres and, as ever, some fascinating surprises.
In this review, I have once again selected the ten displays that caught my attention most. For a combination of reasons: aesthetic beauty, inspirational creativity, interesting conversation with the artist, joy at learning something new and challenging, and whatever the Italian equivalent is for a certain je ne sais quoi. Art Rooms team enlighten me, per favore.
The hottest ticket in town, featuring The Laundromat by French/South African Artist Juliette Pearce (image: Art Rooms)
1. Giacomo Bevanati (Italy / based in UK)
Giacomo skilfully stretches and manipulates a shiny but simple material into the shapes of masks, household items and magical objects. In this unusual form of art, rarely on display, the artist creates, in his own words
“a net of sewed steel and brass wire”.
In some cases the creations stand alone as sculptures but can also be worn as fashion items, or used in even more lively ways. When I arrived at Giacomo’s room on the evening of the private viewing, I found myself in the middle of a performance. A sense of enigma prevailed as masked actors only half engaged with onlookers in an almost mystical ritual. Finally, I was offered tea in a wire tea cup. Just as I put my hand out to take the imaginary beverage, the cup was whisked away and offered to everyone else, and then to others in turn. Tantalising moments for all. A touch of the absurd, perhaps. Considerable beauty, definitely. And a joy to see the exhibits up close. I left the room determined to grasp a glass of Prosecco on the hotel landing.
Cosmic Egg by Giacomo Bevanati
Steel wire masks by Giacomo Bevanati
2. Catherine Pickop (Hong Kong)
Next, an artist who uses coffee, rather than tea, to express herself. Catherine describes this product as “a personal material in her art”. It provides both the inspiration for and the practical means of expressing her ideas and thoughts on paper. As a physical stimulant, exciting through its aroma and texture, coffee presents a whole body, sensory experience. This can be a form of therapy at times. The application and removal of the coffee pigment is an intimate experience for the artist, then, and knowledge of this augments the appreciation of viewers as they gaze on the eventual physical representations.
The technique applied may seem like a simple, repetitive process, but there is
considerable subtlety in the method and the outward expression of abstract, internalised forms of creativity. As Catherine says,
"The carefully calibrated neutral tones create complex special compositions".
The technique, as well as the pictures created, are the artist's way of communicating her response to the sensations she experiences, in delicate but never quite perfect forms. This adds to the charm of Catherine's art. I particularly enjoyed the delightful variations and transitions in this series of images, in what is essentially a limited, but perfect colour scheme.
Catherine Pickop, with When Someone Is Seeking to her right
Art not just inspired by coffee, but made with coffee
3. Elliot Walker (UK)
This was a first for me. A display of superbly crafted items by a gifted glass sculptor with an arresting social conscience that calls for a global, not just a personal response. First though, to his equipment and method. Elliot has his own furnace which is always alight and reaches 1000 degrees celsius. Cooling down is not an option. The materials arrive in batches, looking a bit like sacks of cat litter, but containing sand, lead and other vital minerals. These melt down to a colourless glass. Having cooled down, colour is added in veneers of glass. Or injected into bubble blown pieces.
For Art Rooms, Elliot brought trays of glass fruit, mainly citrus, including one that I didn’t quite recognise but still looked stunning. He also showcased a fun-looking child’s chair in a luminescent green reminiscent of the colour of the radioactive rod Homer Simpson takes home from the nuclear plant. I was astonished to read after the event that Elliot uses uranium glass to investigate his “fear and distrust of nuclear power”.
Wondering if it's safe to sit on? Elliot Walker's glass chair
In his notes on the potentially devastating impacts of uranium in the wrong hands, the artist refers to
“the vitrification and crystallisation of materials at sites of great calamity”.
The transformation process is remarkable, creating something attractive in appearance but deadly in what it symbolises. Exquisite, but also disturbing. As Elliot says,
“there is a fascinating beauty in disaster”.
A Perfect Fruit by Elliot Walker
4. Batool Showghi (Iran / based in the UK)
This was one of the most charming rooms in the exhibition, made poignant by reference to painful memories. There was a sense of trying to recapture treasured aspects of a former way of life. Telling of loss, and the struggle to maintain identity and cultural practices. Batool is an Iranian artist who fled her homeland after the war with Iraq in the early 1980s.
In her craft, she reflects on the themes of turbulence, immigration and re-establishing one’s life in an unknown environment. She talks of the
“disintegration of the family and the experience of displacement”.
This is a very human story. With a determination to hold on to and share things that matter.
In her display there is some blurring between the actual and the fictional. The beautiful photo collage is described in the catalogue notes by the artist as a fantasy of bringing the family together. Something that is possible at least in the imagination, if not in reality due to geographic, temporal or other constraints. The series of tapestries made from coloured scraps of fabric are both fun and complex. An assembly of faces; white, brown, even pale blue. Everyone is connected and restrained by red thread, sewn onto a background of passports and birth certificates. They made me think about the lives of their owners and I'm still wondering.
Bringing everyone together: family photos
5. Haoua Habré (France)
When I asked Haoua to tell me about her pictures, she showed me a poem. I was intrigued. Each of her paintings is inspired by her own poetry, which in turn comes from her dreams and, in her own words, some very dark places. That suggests nightmares, which is surprising since the artist also goes by the name La Femme Fleur, which is soothing, not scary.
Haoua Habré, next to Métamorphose
Each painting presents a figure in the abstract to be encountered by the viewer. Mainly using watercolours and acrylics, there are elements of cartoon imagery and a distinct homage to Basquiat, though not overdone. A sketchy, youthful style, with a few scruffy edges but they are an integral part of the mystical, dark figure from the depths of the mind. Haoua describes her paintings as
“an escape, a solution to express herself, in a different way, screaming without even saying a word. Art, dreams, colours”
Double by Haoua Habré
And so the artist’s dreams allow some form of escape, and yet they are also a personification of a tortured mind. This represents an internal and external conundrum.
The dimly lit room and the engagement between artist and viewer, art and perception, poetry and reaction, creates and an immersive experience. Eyes wide open, yes, but for full appreciation and connection, let your mind go deep too.
6. Simão Martinez (Portugal)
Any artist with a passion for chemistry is always likely to impress me. Simão comes from a family of scientists and engages in technical research to integrate his findings into his conceptual and creative processes. This touches on an element of the sciences in my own studies, and it’s refreshing to meet a kindred spirit who is happy to embrace different disciples and perspectives. And yet I always come down on the side of the Arts.
Simão paints in oils, but his most striking works on display were his line printings.
Monochrome, and in bold strokes, they draw you in and make it hard to walk away from them. They also remind me of the works of a huge figure in the history of printing and engraving: William Blake. This is consistent with Simão’s claim that through his art he is
“seeking a bridge between contemporary art and primitive expression…my artworks bleed into the void between abstraction and figuration”.
The presence of Faust in his series of prints entitled Procession adds to the mystique and fiery depths evoked in the darker stages of the romantic period. The struggling of the soul in an all-consuming challenge. This all feels very much like Blake to me.
Simão Martinez in front of his Procession series
Relating to his oil paintings, and to more naturalistic representations, Simão cites Rembrandt as a source of reference. I can see some similarities in style there, but I somewhat cheekily say ‘stick to the lines’.
7. Myriam Thomas (Belgium)
One of the many of the many joys of Art Rooms is learning about new artistic techniques. Spending time in Myriam’s room gave me a real insight into the way she creates images that are pictorially beautiful and highly intricate in their crafting. For this, she applies cyanotype on float glass, with gilded silver leaf and engraving. A gelatinous layer is included in a blueprint, photographic process which, I learnt, was especially popular at the end of the 19th century.
In Myriam’s work, this results in a stunning range of blues: light, dark, distressed, smooth. This demonstrates one of the great powers of artistry; the ability to contrast, conflict and combine. In this case the outcome is unified splendour.
From the My Enclosed Garden triptych series by Myriam Thomas
The subjects of Myriam’s images come from different realms, including entities and places in the natural world, notably trees and gardens. Other images convey depictions of ideas and thoughts developed in dreams.
Many of her exhibits are triptychs, with some single pieces, all in a range of sizes. Most pieces were in open view, as expected. On the advice of a fellow event-goer, I opened a drawer and found a miniature version of a similar exhibit on the bed. This was a surprise on an unprecedented scale.
From My Enclosed Garden, in smaller scale, by Myriam Thomas
(image from artist's website)
8. Sofia Pirosanto (Argentina)
Next, another wondrous room of cultural artefacts and memory constructs.
The centrepiece of Sofia’s collection was a human-sized and shaped collection of fragments of books; ageing, yellow and brown, resting on the bed. At the head, instead of eyes, nose and mouth, there was a heart. A curious position for this organ, physically, but also given the conventional opposite status of their respective influences on human decision making: the heart for emotion and irrationality, the head for logic and reason. This piece, titled Memoire Thread, was held together by stitching. There’s a link here to fellow artist Batool Showghi. Sofia also emphasises connectivity and, to a lesser extent, restraint, connecting objects, people, times, places and emotions.
Memoire Thread by Sofia Pirosanto
This is the room of a storyteller. An artist exposing herself and her soul, in a creative and therapeutic mode. There is evidence of great warmth in the way Sofia makes reference to family and friends, even if they have only spent a few minutes in her life, as well as people she has never met. Time and memory are everywhere, with symbolic links to historical events and states of mind.
The role of music is also recognised, with a long sheet of pianola notes draped over the dresser. The propensity for an emotional response is boundless. And all around, the artist claims, the world carries on in silence.
9. Marc Brousse (France)
For his display, Marc created a “‘Panhellenic sanctuary”, dark, with music to enhance the viewing environment. The main attractions were his drawings in ink and charcoal, depicting colossal structures that appeared to float in mid-air.
Look at his drawings too closely and you may become exhausted. Marc estimates that for each square metre of paper, he makes 300,000 lines or markings. Each major piece on display, all composed freehand, took around a hundred hours to complete. Marc uses the term traitillism to define his style and technique. It describes principles that express
“the infinity, complexity and contradiction principles in architecture.”
Well, the effort was worth it Marc! The pictures are magnificent.
Urban Archive (image from the artist's website)
Marc also uses the expression epigenetic. In scientific terms, this means a development in an organism that is not hereditary or heritable. From this, I understand that Marc’s drawings are creations which may be based on existing constructs, but adapt organically in the creative process, developing new attributes and qualities. This seems to me to be what happens when a portrait artist creates an image of a subject. So I must be missing something. Still, I am happy to marvel at Marc’s dynamic and enthralling structures. His accuracy and level of detail are extraordinary.
Deepness (image from the artist's website)
10. Alice Padovani (Italy)
This art form is completely new to me so I’m going to have to wing it. Taxidermy seems too weighty a term. There’s not much room to cram anything into these creatures. Insect preserving sounds closer. But no buzz words come to mind so feel free to let me know the official term. Were they alive, Alice’s subjects would have been hovering around the Meliá White House hotel, some in search of honey no doubt. But sadly they were dead, and very still.
Event-goers will have been delighted by Alice’s installation in the foyer of the hotel, Solid.
Solid by Alice Padovani, in the Meliá White House Hotel foyer
Solid was spectacularly and extensive, but I was far more interested in the contents of the perspex boxes in her room. I asked Alice how long the butterflies would last, and had she used any chemicals? They looked huge and glamorous, regal even. I was pleased to hear that being completely dried out, and kept away from any destructive moisture, they would survive indefinitely. Quite a change from the average butterfly’s time on this planet. Enshrined as works of art, amazingly with no artificial substances applied, I dared to think they might last for eternity.
Preserved butterfly by Alice Padovani (image from the artist's website)
Where pinned, even the pins were arrestingly beautiful. Some of the fixings were not even fixing anything, they were there to create stunning structures which captivated the viewer as well as the bugs.
It strikes me that there is a thread that connects all of the artists in this review and probably the vast majority of artists everywhere. Despite the wide variety of styles and modes of expression in this exhibition, and beyond, there is an essential, unifying link. As well as having an individual urge, a necessity even, to express themselves, artists also desire to impart something of themselves to others. To share their experiences and reflections through their art, with all comers.
In my experience, the Art Rooms artists are invariably happy to engage with everyone who shows an interest, whether they are devoted art lovers or those who are slowly finding their way. Some may be just curious, and they are welcome too. There are stories to be told as well as pictures to be viewed, and the exhibition experience is all the better for it. For me, the conversations are as valuable as the viewings. The connectivity is everything.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
All photographs in this review (c) Eddie Hewitt, unless specified otherwise
See the Connected Cultures feature: Art Rooms 2019 - Hard to leave out
See the Connected Cultures feature: Art Rooms 2019 - Return Favourites
Previous Connected Cultures features on Art Rooms Exhibitions:
See the Connected Cultures review of Art Rooms 2018 here
See the Connected Cultures review of Art Rooms 2017 here
See the Connected Cultures review of Art Rooms 2016 here