Saturday, 12 October 2013

Old Master Dialogues at the Collyer Bristow Gallery

'Hands' French, c18th, Richard Day
I am lucky enough to work in a place with an idiosyncratic and eclectic take on the arts. A dedicated curatorial partnership works with the firm's gallery to stage three varied exhibitions per year, and though generally small in scale, are large in personality. Old Master Dialogues is the latest offering and is a collection of selected and newly commissioned works responding to the Old Master prints and drawings collection of Richard Day.

The exhibition notes say that museums traditionally aim to observe the hierarchies of history, whereas collectors and artists acquire or visually consume anything and everything that appeals to them personally. And this goes straight to the heart of this show. The small, intimate pieces borrowed from the Day Collection demand your attention because they have this aura of love and care around them. They are all beautiful works of art and where artists have responded to a specific one, they could not fail to have been inspired by it and open a dialogue with the past.

The difference within the commissioned works is vast. Even when the subject is similar they are treated in different ways. The landscapes of Chloe Steele are warm, romantic, apricot and gold, the abstracted light shining out of the canvas. Mark Wright's have the silver moon rising out of vivid purples and greens, colours that threaten to engulf the viewer. Mark was inspired by the tiny atmospheric sketch of his former teacher Alan Reynolds’s ‘Study of trees at Shoreham’.

Richard Stone took the red chalk drawing of a horse by Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640) and expanded and deconstructed it conceptually; he took the ornate frame, the red chalk, the horse and created a number of 3D tableaux which in all, mimic and recreate the light forward movement of the horse in the drawing. Aly Helyer maintains her familiar grasp of the surreal portrait, four of them created in response to the Abraham Bosse seventeenth century elemental portraits.

During the curator talk, Lucy stated that though there are many genres for ‘Old Master’ works, landscape, portrait, etc., contemporary art appears to have just one label; ‘contemporary’. This classic academy based artificial demarcation of genre or subject is not as important to artists working now as it was to artists in the past. But in an exhibition like this, the curators have to work with the traditional language of these drawings or the dialogue set up in this exhibition would risk being lost in translation. Therefore many of these commissioned pieces are examples of landscape or portrait, consciously echoing their source material – however this is as much curatorial choice as it is artistic.

What perhaps wasn’t expected was such a 'gothic' atmosphere. When I imagine fine seventeenth century etchings, chalk drawings, and a stunning Ludovico Carracci Madonna and child, I didn’t think I’d depart feeling quite so dark. The temporary Fiona MacDonald installation inspired by the Shoreham Ancients of the 1820s with the light supplied by the moon and the barn owl was suitably eerie. Ann-Marie James's astonishingly worked found book plates from the series 'Bernini and other studies' were arresting in their metamorphosing genius. Their art historical antecedents are obvious but they have a touch of Victoriana macabre; the smearing of faces is really disturbing.

The other star of the exhibition was the Gordon Cheung series ‘Revelations’ (2009).  Laser cut on to compressed wodges of the Financial Times, the biblical beasts and hellish symbols really need no explanation. The link between the money and banker avarice is clear and the artist is making a political and economic statement. The images he uses are certainly not Old Masters; they belong to an age before. Although these are powerful, it is difficult to see where they fit into the conversation with the other rather polite images.

My final remark is simply a question regarding the title of the exhibition ; 'Old Master Dialogues'. What precisely is an old master? For me it screams dull, dark oils of the very worst kind that you find in terrible art dealers, usually of still life flowers of the Dutch type. So I would prefer not to open a dialogue with some of these awful artists... So despite the off putting name of this exhibition, the channels it opens between the old and new, the found and the rediscovered are extremely thought provoking. And most of all elicit a personal response to what is essentially a very personal art collection.

'Old Master Dialogues' at the Collyer Bristow Gallery runs to 29 Jan 2014.

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