Artist Rooms

May 2009

Publication: The Times

ARTIST ROOMS is a grouping of artworks (valued at £125m) and purchased in 2008 for £26.5m (the original purchase price) from gallery-owner and art dealer Anthony d’Offay. The costs were met by the Scottish and British Governments, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and The Art Fund. The result is fifty rooms of contemporary art by twenty-five artists to be shown in numerous venues across the UK throughout the year.


The work of Damien Hirst, along with that of Vija Celmins, Ellen Gallagher, Alex Katz, Andy Warhol and Francesca Woodman is currently to be found at SNGMA and forms part of the much bigger national exhibiting project, jointly run by Tate.


Hirst’s work occupies the majority of space (five rooms, in fact) and although aspects of his work are occasionally facile and clumsy, his intent and talent should not be over-looked. His preoccupation with religion, death, and medicine – and the panoply of means he uses to express these concerns – are well worth pondering. An example is ‘Monument to the Living and the Dead’  (2006) which consists of two panels (one black, one white) with butterflies embedded in gloss paint. It’s a simple, elegant idea full of delicate hints at the nature of the duality of life and death. Similarly, Hirst’s reinterpretation of Degas’ ‘The Little Fourteen-year-old Dancer’ of 1880-81, ‘Wretched War’ (2004), shows Hirst to be capable of high seriousness and moral courage.


For those unfamiliar with the work of Francesca Woodman and Vija Celmins there is a great treat in store.  Both artists use the medium of photography to explore the wonder and fragility of life. Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of twenty-two, was undoubtedly influenced by the Surrealist photography of Man Ray and others but there is something about her vision which is unique and immensely powerful. She demonstrates this, for example, in an untitled work from 1975-80 showing a female nude partly obscured by an unhinged door which leans precariously against a wall in a sunlit, derelict room.


Celmins, who was born in 1938 and spent her early years in Latvia and Germany, is fascinated by the universe as both macrocosm and microcosm. Her studies of spiders’ webs expressed as mezzotints, photogravure and aquatints echo the patterning and delicacy found in work such as ‘Night Sky 2 Reversed’ (2002). Elsewhere the painstaking detail and craftsmanship of woodcut, wood-engraving and drypoint in the ‘Ocean Surface’ series (1983-2000) are both inspiring and beautiful.


In total the d’Offay collection of work by Andy Warhol numbered 232 pieces and included paintings, drawings, watercolours and photographs. Here ten ‘stitched photographs’ can be seen, illustrating Warhol’s fascination with portraiture, celebrity, mortality, and the American way of life. Warhol’s technique is to assemble copies of the same photograph, (usually in groupings of four or six) bound by stitched thread; the combination of mechanically reproduced simulacra and hand-craft produces an interesting juxtaposition, introducing an element of the personal into an oft-perceived impersonal medium.


Both Ellen Gallagher (b.1965) and Paul Katz (b.1927) employ painting to express their disparate concerns. In Gallagher’s case it’s her pre-occupation with race and class in the contemporary US ­– a result, one supposes, of her mixed Irish and African-American ancestry. These are compelling works, revealing in her large canvasses something more politically challenging than the Abstract Expressionism of her predominantly white male precursors. Katz’s work is the most disappointing of this grouping making is difficult to discern whether he is faux-naif or merely a poor painter.


Until 8 November 2009