Looking at great art needn't cost the same as buying great art. With a shed-load of free art exhibitions in London, wandering through sculptures, being blinded by neon or admiring some of the best photography in London needn't cost a penny. Here's our pick of the best free art exhibitions this week and beyond.
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Free art exhibitions in London
Humanity is capable of abominable acts of violence and degradation. We ignore most of them – they happen somewhere else, to other people – but our capacity for atrocity was laid bare during the Iraq war when images emerged of the humiliating treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One showed Ali Shallal al-Qaisi stood on a box, a hood pulled over his head, arms spread wide, with wires attached to his fingers and genitals. Brutal, degrading, vile. A painting of that horrifying act opens Rachel Howard’s show at Newport Street Gallery. His cloak is rendered as dripping, stuttering lines of weeping green and black, his hood is a drooping mask of misery. It’s a brilliant, violent little painting. The rest of the works here are much bigger and translate al-Qaisi’s story into an allegory for Christ’s stations of the cross, a classic art historical trope. Howard does away with obvious symbolism, creating instead these huge, almost entirely monochromatic, sandy-coloured abstracts. They glisten; they look hard, permanent, like polished wood or marble. The only shape in any of them is the box from the photo of al-Qaisi’s torture – a constant, repeating allusion to his suffering. A plinth, or the edge of a crucifix. The paint seems to stutter like a misfiring printer, creating washes of blurry colour, a little nod to Gerhard Richter. There’s also a barren solemnity and austerity that hints at Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Howard’s sights aren’t set on grand emotional gestures but on so
If being around fragile objects gives you the sweats and fills you with the fear that you’re seconds away from tripping over and accidentally destroying someone’s life’s work, this exhibition may not be for you. The first room of Susan Collis’s show of new work, ‘All this falling’, is made up of impossibly fragile art. What look like frayed pieces of tarpaulin on the floor and wall are actual single sheets of perfectly detailed and barely-held-together bits of paper. They’re so dangerously slight, so clearly the results of hours of meticulous work, that they make me shakily nervous. It’s a neat continuation of Collis’s aesthetic. She’s made paint splatters out of mother of pearl, screws out of gold and diamonds, but these works seem more focused on fragility and dedication than previous pieces. The other works here are huge sheets of charcoal-black paper, the result of wall rubbings from derelict homes. These big drawings shimmer with the lives that once lived in these spaces, they feel heavy with the destruction of a place. In dereliction, as in tarpaulin, Collis finds something to unpick. What Collis does is uncover the sublime in the mundane. She finds beauty in stains and screws, strength in the fragility of a tarp, a subtle power in the aesthetics that surround us. Maybe there’s beauty everywhere, Collis just seems to know how to point it out.
Camden Arts Centre on Finchley Road is just down the road from the Freud Museum, former home to the daddy of psychoanalysis. Sigmund was obsessed with dreams, believing them to be a repository of hidden desires ripe for ripping apart on the therapist’s couch. So it’s a neat coincidence that the CAC has also drifted off to the land of nod with ‘Sleep Rock’, the first UK solo exhibition by American artist Sadie Benning. There are 19 new works here, arranged in sequence to resemble film stills, or the individual frames of a graphic novel. The majority of the artworks are small, resin-covered images made up of retro-looking photos and dense, abstract paintings. The rest are large-scale pieces, again made of a mixture of photos and drawings distorted in size. Featuring newspaper clippings of yesteryear’s Hollywood stars, plus an impressive amount of pre-meme snapshots of domestic moggies, these big artworks reiterate the small-town Americana motif recurring throughout the exhibition. But it’s in the shiny, tiny blocks of pop art colour and translucent photos that the dream theme is clearest. Beauty salons, vending machines, pills and faces (loads of faces) are layered under and over semi-psychedelic painted shapes resembling solidified wax drips. It’s like the visual equivalent of that semi-asleep state where your mind flashes up image after image from the day just gone. Only in Benning’s case, it’s not just memories from an individual’s mind, but snippets of info from a who
Semen straws are used to artificially inseminate cattle as part of a process to breed the best and beefiest bulls. But artist Maria McKinney has another use for them: building sculptures. The artist’s photos of moody-looking bulls wearing these sculptures make up the first room of ‘Somewhere in Between’. McKinney’s stud-farm snaps, titled ‘Sire’, are part of an exhibition that looks at the point where science and art meet – so far, so very Wellcome Collection. Each artist featured approaches the theme in totally different ways. Daria Martin’s ‘Sensorium Tests’ and ‘At the Threshold’ are two short films about mirror-touch synesthesia, a fascinating and often debilitating condition where a person physically feels the things they see – like the pain of a knife slicing into a grapefruit. Next is ‘Alien Sex Club’ by John Walter, a psychotropic-maze-meets-gay-sauna exploring a new era of life and sex with HIV now that medicine can control the condition. Neon cartoon viruses dance on the walls, a marrow wearing a woolly hat (a bit like those Innocent Smoothie ones) lies in a glass case and Caravaggio’s ‘Boy with a Basket of Fruit’ has had his fruit replaced by giant condoms. It’s a hyperactive sensory assault and one that’s followed by its natural opposite, three gloriously tranquil films by Martina Amati showing free diving. Of the four installations, it’s Amati’s that performs the science-art balancing act the best. With the others, the scales always swing one way or the othe
Magali Reus makes art from mundane, everyday objects. Fire extinguishers, nuts and bolts, rucksacks, mattress springs: things that help the world tick over but are never given serious aesthetic consideration. Out of it comes her tricksy, slippery, faintly neurotic brand of sculpture, currently on display at the South London Gallery. The Holland-born, London-based artist works with a slick form of fabrication – casting in resin, 3D printing, laser-cutting, even creating the webbed fabric that’s used for seatbelts. Images culled from magazine covers and other ephemera are made into tactile reliefs. For all the factory-like processes involved, there’s an icky, bodily quality to these works; they made me think of that weird satisfaction you get from peeling protective film from the face of a brand-new phone. What hobbles so much of Reus’s work is a tendency to make a song and dance of its own existence. In ‘Crane’, casts of pots are left self-consciously on their side; in ‘Sentinel (Latchtail)’, seatbelt fabric spools across the ground with a flourish. Deliberate, yes – but it feels like shop-window merchandising, and cheapens the intricacy of everything else. Which is why the ‘Hwael’ works are the best things in the show, and by a long sight. These fibreglass structures, based on the chassis of a bus, look like enormous versions of those frames you pop the parts of an Airfix model from, studded with little scenes-within-scenes like a cast of a trainer bounded in parcel tape.
You know nature is full of patterns – but turns out there’s also loads that simply can’t be seen with the naked eye. That’s where science comes in: this exhibition reveals the pretty patterns that make up our world on a molecular and cellular level. But the Crick Institute has also commissioned artists to respond to them, with sound artist Chu-Li Shewring and poet Sarah Howe inspired by genomic data sets, and Helen Pynor’s photographic installation exploring the movement patterns of the fruit fly. We’re buzzing for it.
How do you exhibit the work of a performance artist when they are no longer with us? Ian White, artist, performer, writer and curator, died of cancer in 2013; now, art critic Kirsty Bell and writer/curator Mike Sperlinger offer a 'speculative thinking-aloud' about how to present and engage with the work of an absent performer. The focus will be on his solo and collaborative works from 2002 until 2012, which saw White layering film and audio visual content with live performance.