Saturday, 11 April 2009

a haunch of venison

Though it was only founded in 2002, Haunch of Venison is already one of London's most important commercial art galleries. It probably helped that the place was founded by Harry Blain and Grahan Southern, two chaps who used to run the contemporary art department of Christie's in London. The gallery only really represents superstars in contemporary art - two of the four 2007 Turner Prize nominees are HoV artists.

In 2007, HoV was bought out by Christie's and the art world went absolutely cracking mad. Auction houses are only supposed to sell work that has been previously purchase in a gallery. It's like when Damien Hirst caused such an uproar in the art scene when he bypassed the dealers and sold straight to the auction houses. Things just aren't done this way in the protocol-obsessed art world. I'm not suggesting I agree with any of it, but it's interesting to know what riles people up in the high financial stakes world of art dealing. In any event, HoV is not allowed to bid for any works at Christie's auctions nor were they allowed to show at the Frieze Art Fair in 2007, but no one really wants to go on the record as saying they have an issue as the big boss of Christie's, Fran├žois Pinault, shells out an awful lot of money on contemporary art. You wouldn't want to piss off the man who keeps your gallery in business, would you.

Still. Some good has come out of the buy out. HoV clearly has a lot more cash to throw about and the first thing they did was abandon their old gallery space in Haunch of Venison Yard, just off Bond Street. The space was quaint, but cramped and impossible to find, so it's a relief that they've moved. The gallery's new home is in Burlington Gardens, where the old Museum of Mankind used to be, though I didn't even know there was a Museum of Mankind. Unfortunately, like a lot of grand buildings, there's a massive discrepancy between upstairs and downstairs spaces. The curators should be banned from showing any work in the downstairs section of the gallery: the resemblance leans more toward an unloved 80s hotel which has seen better days and can't be spruced up with a coat of white paint than a grand gallery space. It's unfair to the works to show them in such inappropriate spaces, and I still can't figure out whether I really didn't like any of the art on the ground floor, or whether the rooms just put me in that bad of a mood for considering art.

When I walked up the grand staircase onto the first floor however, prospects immediately looked up. The first room I went in was spacious and light - simply far more appropriate for the display of contemporary art. Why do curators think white walls, white boxes all the time? The piece in this room is a new installation by Jannis Kounellis which consists of rows of dark overcoats pinned to the floor by iridescent lead plugs and framed by a single row of worn shoes. The piece is untitled, which always irritates me, but I've seen enough holocaust films to get the visual message. However, when I read the blurb, it talks about the trio of materials forming a lexicon that conveys messages of warmth, protection, and the passage of people and time, carrying the imprint of nomadic individuals. Right...

I laughed out loud when I walked into the next room, where hanging from the ceiling were two "anatomically correct" skeletons of Tweety and Sylvester by Hyungkoo Lee. I love the idea of using contemporary art to poke fun of or engage seriously with the practices of something like the displays at the Natural History museum. It's such a fresh and light-hearted take on contemporary art's obnoxious fascination with skulls and images of death. There were at least four different artists at this exhibition who either showed skulls or skulls juxtaposed onto human or animal bodies. It isn't new anymore, there's no shock factor or controversy in doing this and frankly the association has become a bit tired.

I have a weird thing about taxidermy. I just like it. I don't think it's sick or disgusting, but very pretty and sort of delicate. A little macabre, maybe, but I still like it. These taxidermy dogs are by Jochem Hendricks and are funny, creepy, and gorgeous. I loved this room as well. I'm not certain if HoV isn't allowed to hang things directly onto the walls or if there are renovation works still in progress, but the upstairs rooms all had floating walls in front of the original walls on which the artworks were hung. It made for a slightly strange viewing environment, but I did like that they at least painted these walls interesting colours as in the below image, where the wall was painted a deep turquoise.

My favourite piece in the show was an installation by Ed and Nancy Kienholtz from 1994 called 76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade. There are 76 different representations of Christ mounted on wagon handle pulls with the hands and feet from different (what looks like) ceramic dolls. Ed Kienholz was a religious cynic and thought the iconographic representation of Christ was an abuse of spirituality by organised religions which only contributed to a disillusion of faith. It's an absolutely marvelous installation, very well thought out, and quite provocative. At least more so than many of the other installations.

And finally we come to Bill Viola, the primary reason why I went to see the show. Viola is one of HoV's bigger artists and I've seen his work exhibited there previously in 2006, when he created a piece around Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Viola makes video installations - some are marvelous, others less so. Like the Michalek Slow Dancing film I posted about a month ago, Viola films nearly everything in slow motion. His videos are surprisingly painterly and I think you can get the sense of what I mean from the second image below, an installation called Small Saints. They look exactly like Harry Potterified Renaissance icons and are transfixing in their loveliness. The other piece on show is called Incarnation, though I couldn't find any images of it (the photo below is from the Tristan and Isolde video from 2006). Lately many of Viola's pieces seem to feature a sort of screen of water which his actors walk through - it looks incredible in his rich, saturated colours and slow motion films. Viola has a tendency to be a bit fantastic, a bit romantic, and a bit obvious, but nevertheless, he makes you work for every second of meaning.

So while this may not be the most thought provoking, change-your-life provocative show of contemporary art happening, it certainly is entertaining, light-hearted and whimsical. And sometimes what you really need from art is just a few hours of fun.

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