Since Thursday I have made it a point to try to find some rejuvenating art in London so with that I went to museums, I went to some galleries, I went to more museums and honestly there was not too much that revived me. I’m tough to please, I have an impatience for bad art in good contexts but also I know that it’s a time for changeovers in London’s exhibition schedules so I didn't expect too much. In face of the mostly underwhelming on Saturday I thankfully saw a real tingler of a show at Whitechapel entitled, Fiona Banner selects from the V-A-C Collection: Stamp Out Photographie.
So the title says most of what is happening. British artist Fiona Banner (a YBAer) has taken works from the V-A-C Collection (a private collection in Moscow) and has installed and re-imagined them into a room in one of Whitechapel’s free admission galleries. This being the setting doesn’t give away the plot though as what is inside this room and what Banner has done with it is where it thickens. The room is a fair size, not too big, not too small. It is just long enough to not feel claustrophobic but also small enough so you can see from opposite walls with ease. Well seeing with ease is actually not that easy but it’s not from the architecture of the space but from the lighting imparted in the exhibition. Instead of the steady brights and dramatizing spots Banner has opted for a dimming fade of CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) which varies from dim to dark and never fully bright.
These slow shifting lights reminds me of being in a car driven by someone who is trying very hard to be cool and has their windows tinted to a virtual black. Looking out of them, through them, the world is always pre-midnight and a touch sinister. This effect has a bit of the too-cool-for-school/trying-too-hard but it actually works incredibly well. The scene outside is not of the mundane suburbs but of some of the heaviest art hitters our (mostly) Western world has produced in the last hundred years. These artists include:
I have taken the time to spell these names out because it is through the names that you can start to imagine the show. These artists’ names trigger into the mind a ready formed visual and all these names/artists being in the same room together creates a mixing of those visuals. All of them in one room could seem like a recipe for disaster but take my word for it (or go see it for yourself) it works surprisingly well. The Richter is a one of his smaller single candle paintings, Kerze, 1982 but it is hung low and stacked above is Guyton’s Untitled, 2007 which in the dim light auto-conjures Barnet Newman as the fact that it was inkjet on linen misses your eyes with the fading of the lights. Shannon Ebner has a few contributions and the photographic gray scale of them enforces the purpose of the light’s optical effects. Artists that I find a bit annoying like Christopher Williams I found totally fitting in the room as the screaming cry for attention that I usually can’t stand in his flattened photographs gave some geometric surface and playfulness in the room. Also, to see a Monet street scene, The Church at Vetheuil, 1878, in this black-light-esq setting was odd but fun especially when the lights made his whites seem neon.
I don’t know much about who or what the V-A-C is but they have a good eye and obviously a capacity to purchase such a wide swath of art. The collection as museum, the collection as archive is something that has been around for a while and with the total enmeshing of ultra rich with the purchasing of art, this is something we will see more and more of. Being rich and buying a lot of art still has a taint of the tacky if done a certain way. But create a foundation, share your cultural wealth with the public, well then you are like the old school type of rich person we can stomach which is the philanthropist with civic honor. Snark aside, seeing this selection of this collection wasn’t a reveal in the gems that the V-A-C might possess but it was fun nonetheless and Banner’s creative and witty flair for putting works in a room together made it exciting even in the familiarity of the artists and works.
This mixing of genres, times, and value of content is an interesting model for curation and installing. It is one that I think we will be seeing more of, as there seems to be a need to make sense of what all this modernism was and is for. It’s a cleaning out but also a means of measuring relevancy, connection, and necessity of successive generations of art which seems to be getting shorter and more densely populated. Banner’s theatrics in lighting, her taste and style of selection and installation made this process feel fun and slightly liberating. It was a show that gave these artists and the over familiarity we have with them some room to play. Banner let them be cool, underneath the tint of the dimming lights you got a chance to see them without the rose colored glasses of art history and expectations.