Contemporary art

The brilliance of Beryl Cook

Nobody claims Beryl Cook was an artistic genius, least of all the artist herself. ‘I think my work lies somewhere between Donald McGill [the saucy postcard artist that George Orwell wrote so lyrically about] and Stanley Spencer,’ she once told me. ‘But I’m sorry to say I’m probably nearer McGill.’ She was, as ever, being modest. I actually think she’s nearer Spencer – and Hogarth, come to that. Cook’s paintings make us laugh but that doesn’t stop them from being art. (Few would say Shakespeare’s comedies are as profound as his tragedies, but they’re brilliant creations, nevertheless.) Though Victoria Wood dubbed her work ‘Rubens with jokes’, there aren’t actually any

It’s time to free art from being ‘interactive’ and ‘immersive’

The American artist and critic Brad Troemel once pointed out that art galleries have all turned into a kind of adult daycare, and ever since then I haven’t been able to visit a gallery without noticing it. Nearly two decades ago, Carsten Höller installed a set of big aluminium slides in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, and they were undeniably good fun because going down slides is fun. It’s also fun, although maybe for a different type of person, to ask if going down slides counts as art. These days, though, you can hardly move for this stuff. The world is already interactive. You walk around in it. You

The latest Venice Biennale is ideologically and aesthetically bankrupt 

Last week’s opening of the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale marks a watershed for the art world. In much of the festival’s gigantic central exhibition, curated by the Brazilian museum director Adriano Pedrosa, as well as in many of the dozens of independently organised national pavilions and countless collateral events, it more obviously than ever before didn’t so much matter what was on show, but why. The politics of visibility and representation has been eating away at the arts for at least a decade, most recently under the banner of ‘decolonisation’. The now nearly complete abdication of aesthetic criteria in favour of a decolonial organising principle is here finally

Winning: When Forms Come Alive, at the Hayward, reviewed

In case you didn’t know, we live in a ‘post-minimalist’ age, sculpturally speaking. Not a maximalist age, though some of the works in the Hayward’s new sculpture show are huge – an age of revolution against neatness. Who’s to blame for this call to disorder? Women. The two prime movers of this movement, if you can call it that, could not be more different, but both rebelled against minimalist geometry. As a student at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, Ruth Asawa travelled to Toluca, Mexico, and saw villagers looping wire to make baskets for eggs. It struck her as a way of drawing in three dimensions and later,

‘You cannot begin by calling me France’s most famous living artist!’: Sophie Calle interviewed

‘You cannot begin by calling me France’s most famous living artist!’ Thus Sophie Calle objected to the first line of the obituary I wrote for her, commissioned for the enormous exhibition, À toi de faire, ma mignonne (‘Over to you, sweetie’), that currently occupies the whole Musée National Picasso-Paris. But modesty aside, it is a fact that no other French artist alive today is so celebrated, loved, debated, denounced and, indeed, imitated, around the world as Calle. Having long mined her own life for her work, Calle now happily mines her death This year is the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death and that his most important museum should officially mark

The greatest artist chronicler of our times: Grayson Perry, at the Edinburgh Art Festival, reviewed

The busiest show in Edinburgh must be Grayson Perry: Smash Hits which, a month into its run, still has people queuing at 10 a.m. His original title, National Treasure, was rejected because ‘national’ is a politically loaded term in Scotland. But Perry’s lens is resolutely fixed on England and Englishness. Seen from a Scottish perspective, this riot of rococo folkishness is familiar and exotic. Grayson Perry is the greatest artist chronicler of our times, with an omnificent style that’s all substance The exuberant exhibition, which is curated by the National Galleries of Scotland but showing at the Royal Scottish Academy and ends on 12 November, slaps the viewer around the

Policed conviviality: Serpentine Pavilion 2023 reviewed

As I sat down at this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, I overheard a curious exchange. ‘You mustn’t create art within art,’ said an invigilator frostily. He was telling off Fred Pilbrow, an architect, who had been taking in the Pavilion’s sociable atmosphere with friends and painting a watercolour of the scene. They proceeded to enter a perverse negotiation as the invigilator struggled with the theoretical parameters of his orders; apparently the watercolour may stain the furniture but dry media like pencils aren’t allowed either; actually, all art-making is not allowed in any of the exhibitions, ‘but photography is OK’. The timber structure has been stained in a shade of brown that

As seductive as Chagall: Sarah Sze’s The Waiting Room reviewed

Exiting Peckham Rye station, you’re not aware of it, but standing on the platform you can see a mansard roof with ornamental railings silhouetted against the sky like a French chateau. Designed in the 1860s by Charles Henry Driver, architect of Sao Paolo’s Estacao da Luz, it once covered a vaulted waiting room which, after an intermediate existence as a billiard hall, was closed to the public in 1962. In short, it is just the sort of hidden space to tickle the fancies of impresarios-at-large Artangel, who have made it the site of the first UK installation by American artist Sarah Sze. The swirling colours are as seductive as a

At her best when lightly ruffling the surfaces of things: Cornelia Parker, at Tate Britain, reviewed

Cornelia Parker wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but when she was growing up her German godparents sent her a silver spoon or fork every birthday. She seems to have had a thing about silverware ever since. She used to sell it on Portobello Market, and it formed the basis of her first large installation. ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ (1988) could be viewed as an elegy to the fish knife and all those other superannuated aids to aspirational dining whose genteel functions are now all but forgotten – salvers, sauceboats, toast racks, sugar tongs and those scalloped silver shells holding coils of butter beaded with condensation from

Exquisite and deranged: two glass exhibitions reviewed

A ‘Ghost Shop’ has appeared between Domino’s Pizza and Shoe Zone on Sunderland High Street. Look through the laminated window glass and you’ll see more glass: glass shop fittings, a glass cheese plant, a glass pedal bin spilling disposable glass cups, glass chocolate wrappers and glass betting slips littering the floor. Ryan Gander likes the fact that there’s no explanation of his see-through betting shop: ‘If you tell everyone it’s a contemporary art project, they’d run away.’ Gander is one of four artists commissioned by Sunderland’s National Glass Centre to make works inspired by the history of the north-east. Two artists, Katie Paterson and Monster Chetwynd, have chosen themes relating to

Fails to dispel the biggest myth of all: Whitechapel Gallery’s A Century of the Artist’s Studio reviewed

Picture the artist’s studio: if what comes to mind is the romantic image of a male painter at his easel in a grand interior with an admiring audience and a nude model at his elbow, you’re in the wrong century for the Whitechapel Gallery. Its new exhibition, A Century of the Artist’s Studio, runs from 1920 to 2020, and there’s precious little romance about it. To be honest, the studio was never that romantic; Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Artist’s Studio’ (1855), the main source of the stereotype, was itself a send-up. The Whitechapel’s show sets out to complete Courbet’s work, dismantling the myth cliché by cliché. ‘The artist hero… is both

Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning art scene

A little more than a century ago, a charismatic British army captain called T.E. Lawrence and fearsome Bedouin warriors swept through the sublime canyons around the desert city of Al-’Ula where I stroll today. They blew up the Hejaz railway, built to transport hajjis from Damascus towards Mecca but repurposed during the first world war by Turks to ferry munitions and troops. Such was the 1916-18 Arab Revolt that threw off Arabia’s Ottoman yoke. Today a very different kind of Arab uprising is sweeping through Al-’Ula. The canyons resonate not with bombs but with art. Dubai-based Zeinab Alhashemi has constructed boulders made from camel hides for a piece called ‘Camouflage

Part-gothic horror, part-Acorn Antiques: Louise Bourgeois, at the Hayward Gallery, reviewed

Louise Bourgeois was 62 and recently widowed when she first used soft materials in her installation ‘The Destruction of the Father’ (1974). The father in question was not her American late husband Robert Goldwater, the father of her children, but her own French father Louis Bourgeois, long deceased. Set in a space evoking the interior of a digestive tract, the installation’s centrepiece was a table bearing the remains of an imagined feast at which Louise and her brother had eaten their dominating father after dismembering him and cutting off his penis. You have been warned. There is nothing soft about Bourgeois’s soft sculptures, though — on the evidence of the

Paintings dominate – the good, the bad and the very ugly: Frieze London 2021 reviewed

There’s a faint scent of desperation wafting through the Frieze tent this year. Pre–pandemic, this was where you came to see gallerists and artists at the top of their game, knocking back the Moët with collectors to toast another big-ticket sale. But it’s been a tough few years. No art fairs, paltry sales and now there’s a limit on visitor numbers to the fair and travel restrictions are keeping international buyers at bay. So, wandering around the gleaming alleys of the fair, you feel like prime meat being eyed by starving lions. Sadly for them, my bank account is more spam than filet mignon. The first visual thing that hits

How the Beano shaped art

Superman and the Beano are both 83 years old. The American superhero first pulled on his tights for Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938. The following month, roughly 443,000 copies were sold of the Beano’s first issue, featuring Pansy Potter (the Strongman’s Daughter), Big Fat Joe, Wee Peem (He’s a Proper Scream) and, my personal role model, Lord Snooty. Not until Grand Theft Auto launched in 1997 has anything so culturally significant come out of Dundee. But there is a key difference between Superman and the Beano. While American heroes in general and Superman in particular uphold rules, the Beano’s success — its 4,000th edition in 2019 made it

Glorious: Bernardo Bellotto at the National Gallery reviewed

What is the National Gallery playing at? Why, in this summer of stop-start tropical storms, is the NG making visitors — visitors with prebooked, time-slotted tickets, mind — queue outside and in the rain? Why are its cloakrooms still closed and umbrellas forbidden? My husband had to stash his behind a balustrade on Orange Street. Why, with a 1:45 ticket, were we not through the doors until 2:05? Why make your harassed marshals, doing the best they can, shout ticket times and field questions from furious picture-fanciers? Lousy sort of freedom this. The V&A, by the way, is just as bad. I used to roll my eyes at the ‘it’s

What really went on at Britain’s Bikini Atoll?

Nearly a century ago, some Chinese water deer swam the River Ore to Orford Ness. They had escaped from the ornamental deer park at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and, perhaps through ancestral homing instinct, headed as far east as possible without falling into the North Sea. They climbed unsteadily on to this strange shingle spit at the end of England and made it home, along with the gulls, thistles, wild poppies and the brown hares who, reportedly, are too burly to be airlifted by the Ness’s marsh harriers and barn owls. The pioneering deers’ descendants have borne witness since to many faces of human folly. From the first world war

The Turner Prize shortlist is an embarrassment

In 2019 I was asked to be on the jury for the Turner Prize. I was pretty happy about this. As an art critic, to be asked to judge one of the biggest art prizes feels like something of a professional endorsement. I even rang my mum to tell her. ‘But don’t tell anyone yet!’ I said over the phone. ‘It’s not been announced.’ A week or so later, home to see my parents, I walked into the village pub. One of my dad’s friends looked up from his pint and shouted: ‘I heard you’re judging the Turner Prize!’ Mum isn’t known for discretion. The rest of the evening was

How has this complete original been sidelined?

A party of disorderly couples has gatecrashed the Picture Gallery at Bath’s Holburne Museum, climbing on to the antique furniture, hanging off the track lighting and sprawling on the floor, putting the noses of the resident Gainsboroughs, Constables and Zoffanys out of joint. Lawks-a-mercy! What has come over the Holburne? A passel of Mrs & Mrs Popes, that’s what: 36 years’ worth, to be precise. Nicholas Pope carved his first married couple from sliver-thin Forest of Dean stone in 1978 in homage to Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’. At the time, this young minimalist contemporary of Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg was on the up and up: in 1980,

The artists ensnared by the capitalist system they affect to despise

A few years ago, the American artist Barbara Kruger covered the façade of Frankfurt’s Kaufhof department store with a pair of huge eyes. It was as if Big Brother had come out of retirement. Above that unsparing gaze was the slogan, in Kruger’s signature Futura bold italic font: ‘You want it. You buy it. You forget it.’ It was a typical work of art by Kruger. She made her career from what’s called culture jamming, subverting media messages by transforming them into their own anti-messages and by indicting the business of capitalism. In 1987, for instance, she took an advertising image of an all-American boy flexing his juvenile biceps before