white cube

Twisted limbs


Readers of this blog will know that I have written about the artist Berlinde de Bruyckere after discovering her at the Venice Biennale last year. Her vast piece, Cripplewood, had a profound effect – its twisted and injured limbs were crammed into the claustrophobic, church-dark space of the Belgian pavilion. As I wrote at the time, de Bruyckere began the piece after encountering a massive tree that had been uprooted by a storm and had fallen in the middle of a road. From this she imagined a ruined cathedral, its roof vault collapsed in on itself.

The current show at SMAK in Ghent includes this piece. Inside a light, large gallery, it has a very different impact. Still powerful, but this time the tree is visible to us, and we can see the trauma of its bloodied surface, its construction (wax, formed to resemble wood). It becomes more of a vast supine monster than felled tree, reaching its strange tentacles into the far corners of the gallery. Exposed to us in the harsh white, we see trauma made plain; stretches of grey laced with red.


Trauma is the word I carry with me through the rest of the show. Here is the body bent over itself, as if trying to protect its delicate case, or the body jerked into an unnatural pose, pain coursing through every sinew. The pose is often one we recognise: de Bruyckere grew up in the city that gave us Van Eyke’s altarpiece, the centre of Netherlandish religious art, less beautiful and golden-hued than the Italian painters, more earthy and earthly; Christ resembles any ordinary man, he bleeds, we read pain in his face.


The other great influence is butchery. The artist’s father was a butcher and a recreational hunter, and she retains a childhood memory of animal carcasses strung up, exposing their inner workings. Into her monochrome palette one colour comes streaming: red. It’s the red of fresh blood, bright and horrible.

It is difficult to forget that this is the centenary of WWI, and scattered around the Belgian countryside are the grand cemeteries of that war. In de Bruyckere I’m also reminded of the sketches of the official war artist Henry Tonks, that displayed the most gruesome injuries (Tonks had trained as a doctor before he became an artist) but still managed to capture the humanity of his subjects, in their eyes, their composure. Having said that, the faces of de Bruyckere’s subjects are obscured; it’s the body that speaks.


It seems a strange thing to say, but the work is also beautiful. There is a delicacy and grace, especially in the drawings, where the pencil passes over the paper like a whisper. 

This is a stunning and harrowing show. Having recently blogged about the Schiele exhibition, and the Nakeds at the Drawing Room (and having recently run a writing workshop for the Tracey Emin show at White Cube) it feels as if this is the culmination of thinking about the body and how it is exposed. I will be thinking about this work for a long time to come. 

On the trail

A lovely Friday evening in late September, and we are on the Art Trail around Bermondsey, hosted by ARTHOUSE1, in conjunction with the London Sculpture Workshop and Drawing Room. All three venues are within shouting distance of each other; a stone’s throw away from White Cube, but it’s a different world entirely once you cross the Tower Bridge Road. Gentrification has been slower to creep across the unofficial boundary between new and old Bermondsey, so there have been opportunities to create new models for galleries and studio spaces. This colonization reminds me of Berlin, a city where both domestic and ex-commercial spaces have been commandeered for art. In this corner of Bermondsey there is a spirit of experimentation, a desire to give both artists and viewers a different, perhaps more intimate and lively, kind of experience.

In a recent article in the Weekend FT, Edwin Heathcoat discusses the phenomenon of the ‘domestic gallery’. As he explains, this is not a recent trend; before the days of the public gallery, museums were established in the homes of collectors. He goes on to say:

Artists have rediscovered the pleasure in displaying their work in the more human context of the domestic interior, on a scale that we can relate to more easily and in an environment less cool and disengaged than the white painted loft or the raw concrete of the pseudo-industrial.

This is certainly the case with ARTHOUSE1, one of the domestic galleries Heathcoat mentions in his piece. ARTHOUSE1 is a late Georgian townhouse, a reminder of what the area would have looked like in the days before the encroaching new builds and warehouses. A sandwich board outside is the only indication that we are in the right spot. Once inside, we climb the stairs to find a modern, clean gallery space occupying the top floor. Rebecca Fairman, the curator, has brought together two artists whose work is complimentary: the ceramicist James Oughtibridge and the painter, Ione Parkin. Parkin’s work particularly impresses me, in its scope and themes (often referencing the natural world, or the landscape of deep space). In the brief talk she gives, she mentions her interest in the alchemic properties of certain materials. In some of the works on paper she has employed powdered copper, to give the surface a jagged and metallic appearance. These works have names like Tundra and Land Mass, suggesting elements of landscape within the abstract.

(Since my visit, a new show has opened with works by Kim Norton and Alexandra Mazur-Knyazeva: www.arthouse1.co.uk)

From ARTHOUSE1 we walk down a side street and into the empty tarmac lot surrounding several vast warehouses. There are still light industrial units and storage facilities in the area, hidden-away places that secretly service the city. One of the units houses the London Sculpture Workshop, a not-for-profit space that provides sculptors with 2500 square feet of working area, and facilities, support and equipment that might not be available to them otherwise. The range of equipment is impressive, many items donated to the Workshop or bought cheaply from defunct businesses. Artists can book space when they need it, and can work in just about every medium with a variety of materials, from clay and bronze to sheet metal. We were shown works in progress, and also photographs of an open day, where local residents were invited into the building to create their own art. It is an incredible place, which allows artists, who may not have the support of an art school or the money to source specialist equipment and supplies, the freedom to think beyond such limitations.


From the LSW, we retraced our steps to Drawing Room, the one venue on our walk that I’d visited before, on the occasion of their brilliant show Abstract Drawing, curated by Richard Deacon. The current show The Nakeds is on a similar scale: ambitious, challenging, provoking, with a mix of established artists, such as Tracey Emin, Marlene Dumas, Joseph Beuys and Egon Schiele (anticipating the show of late nudes about to open at the Courtauld), alongside less familiar names, including the extraordinary Maria Lassnig, whose work has spanned the twentieth century, and Stewart Helm, whose voyeuristic drawings of men meeting in parks at night are unflinching and strange; as viewers, we feel we are participating in this illicit act.

Many of the drawings in the show confront our ideas of what it is to be ‘naked’, which conjures ideas of isolation, desire and shame, and is perhaps distinct from the more artistic associations of the ‘nude’. It is a world-class show, curated by David Austin, an artist, and Gemma Blackshaw, an art historian, and their intelligence and consideration of the subject is present in their choice of artists, their juxtapositions, and in their catalogue material.

Drawing Room also has a library, a small shop (selling fabulous books, including their own publications), and a programme of talks, films and courses to accompany each show. Based on the two exhibtions I’ve seen, I would say they are one of the most interesting and innovative art venues in London at the moment. More people need to venture beyond Bermondsey Street and seek them out.