Top 5 of 2023
It seems unbelievable to me that I’m now rounding out the seventh year of the Artangled project. Can I call doing a year-end post traditional at this point? I did one in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022, after all.
Aside from a brief lockdown-induced hiatus, I’ve posted every week over this entire period. This is my 289th post. Not bad for a project I do all by myself, beginning to end. (I’m often pretty much the only reader too, according to my analytics platform!)
My original theory when I started the project was that, if I’m at an exhibition, I’m more likely to pay closer attention to what I’m looking at if there’s a possibility that I might challenge myself to write about it in the near future. The theory holds true still.
For whatever reason, my gallery-going obsession’s only deepened recently: I saw 245 shows this calendar year, a step up from the 220 from 2022, and only beaten by the 256 I saw in the first year of the project, 2018.
Anyway, quantity doesn’t mean quality, so as is traditional - ha! - I’ll begin the year-end round up by listing out my five best exhibitions of the year.
Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief (Camden Art Centre, London)
I passed up the chance of buying the book for this show the first time I visited. It was sold out by the second time, and now is totally unobtainable, even second hand. I knew this was a reputation-making show for the ages pretty much immediately, and hope I gave some of that sense in my initial post at the time.
Martin Wong, who was a Haight-Ashbury hippie in the 1960s and died of AIDs in the late 1990s, was a supremely gifted painter of brickwork. Close-set, dirt-ringed, orangey-brown, they’re the bricks of the tenement buildings of the Lower East Side of New York City which surrounded the apartment where he lived in the 1980s, sombrely-coloured and intricate.
Like so many artists, Wong came up with an iconography of his own. His included a magic 8-ball. Disembodied hands making signs. Gold-outlined stars and constellations. He frequently added descriptions of the scene, painted onto the brick walls in his close-set, spidery handwriting. I’m haunted by these images now, months later. I really hope Wong becomes a planet conquering posthumous artistic giant, like his near-peers Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. This show did its best to set him on the way.
Nicole Eisenman: What Happened (Whitechapel Gallery, London)
Visitors to this retrospective exhibition - surprisingly, Eisenman’s first in the UK in a public gallery - bore witness to a master at work. Her specific mastery is in the handling of paint, and it’s pretty thrilling to witness what she does with it.
The show peaked with Eisenman’s commanding handling of the central figure in The Darkward Trail, a 2018 work, pictured above, that will happily stay in the UK after being acquired by Tate. Looked at from below, I could see that this chubby, shorts-clad, mule-riding man had had his fat pink knees delineated by just a few arced brush strokes. A shiny mini-rainbow of flesh that probably took its creator a few seconds to carve into the canvas. But she needed a whole lifetime of learning to be able to carve it.
Jock McFadyen: Underground (Grey Gallery, London)
I’ve long been a fan of the painter Jock McFadyen, a self-described abstract artist whose scenes are nevertheless piercingly familiar and strange - showing as they do London’s grit, grot and light. Recently he’s been opening up temporary exhibitions in the building that houses his studio, including this one late in the year, which featured some of McFadyen’s paintings of London Underground stations, alongside an ambient soundscape from the musician Jem Finer.
I felt too embarrassed to mention in my original post about the show that the artist himself was sat in one of the galleries, when I went, reading his Saturday Financial Times and chatting to visitors, most of which he seemed to know. Or that his wife, Susie Honeyman, gave me a Penguin bar and a tour of the studio upstairs. Or that he spent some time with me in the gallery, talking about the work pictured above, during which, he stabbed at the canvas with his finger in a thrilling proprietary gesture. I left the gallery walking on air.
Spencer Finch: Lux and Lumen (Hill Art Foundation, New York City)
“Ye cannot serve God and mammon,” claims the gospel of Matthew. But the Hill Art Foundation gives it a good go. This small gallery is owned by hedge fund billionaire J. Tomlinson Hill, and earlier this year hosted a beautiful bringing-together of a Renaissance stained glass window (bought by Hill at auction) and various stained glass installations from contemporary artist Spencer Finch.
In its new temporary home, the centuries-old illuminated Adam and Eve, God the Father and Holy dove, all gaze out on Finch’s main installation, entitled Painting Air: perfect squares of clear glass, suspended from the ceiling by a cats cradle of wires and overlooked by a chatty guard who wished to make very sure visitors weren’t wearing backpacks before getting into range. The show must have been a nightmare to install and maintain, in other words. But it was a magnificent experience to visit.
Mike Silva: New Paintings (The Approach, London)
I reviewed a Mike Silva show at this gallery three years ago, and it’s not a dig to say that this new exhibition is an almost exact retread of what I saw in 2020. The pleasure I took in the two shows was was also pretty much identical, due to Silva’s considerable skill. The power of the empty interiors he paints come from their specificity. They’re purely, recognisably London somehow, intensely recognisable in their weak light, their mildewy walls and their parched houseplants.
When I left the gallery, to a sky pregnant with rain, framed by dark brick buildings, it was as if I’d stepped into the background of a Silva scene. Art may console and reassure, as well as broaden horizons.
Here are five other shows I saw and loved this year, to round out a top 10.
- Jean Bosphore: Slumber Party (Sobering, Paris)
- Lucian Freud: New Perspectives (National Gallery, London)
- Jenkin van Zyl: Surrender (Edel Assanti, London)
- Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle (Barbican, London)
- Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own (Sotheby’s, London)
Disappointment of the year
I don’t have any Christmas turkeys from this year - the tradition is that I nominate a show from a public gallery or museum that I really didn’t like. I found some of the Marina Abramović retrospective at the Royal Academy deeply grating: the money-grab baby sketches on five star hotel room notepaper was a particular eye-rolling low. But, if I’m honest, I found other parts thrilling and revelatory.
Let’s say another show from the same venue then: I visited one called Making Modernism there in January, but have absolutely no memory of having done so. My notes don’t really help either: “Munters interior with the elongated carpet runner.” “PMB the standout for the sensitivity.” Nope, no idea. Not a turkey, but not one that’s exactly seared into the memory.
“The moment it stops being enjoyable, I’ll stop,” I wrote in my year-end post last year.
That’s still true. If I wake up on Sunday morning and the half hour or so it will take to write and add that week’s post seems too much of a chore, then the project will end, entirely unnoticed by anyone who’s not me.
I’m still enjoying it though, so I’d say odds are that the tradition will be continued this time in 2024.