A red carpet over green grass leads to a white pop up portico framing the entrance to a vast marquee, a primitive structure lifted to the sublime by a printed cloak resembling the hospital building: Henry James’ “principle of indefinite horizontal extensions” in canvas. Masterpiece attracts the famous and infamous. Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice walk on by. Anna Wintour’s sharp bob and Zandra Rhodes’ fuschia bob make them both recognisable from behind, surely the key definition of fame. We are joined by leading architect and avatar of heritage today John O’Connell, first director of the Irish Architectural Archive Nick Sheaff, and reductivist artist Suresh Dutt. What’s the collective noun for design luminaries? Coterie?
Now in its fourth year, Masterpiece is a variegated container of uses, architecture, history and technologies, challenging our thinking on design, strategies and the relevance of art – and on the urban importance of aesthetics. It questions artistic predilections and speculates on ideas of time and context. A temporary setting for the permanently magical. First – pit – stop the Ruinart stand, the oldest champagne house, purveyor to the likes of Browns Hotel. Next stop, The Mount Street Deli for beetroot and avocado salad.
The new Maserati Quattroporte on display provides a beautiful distraction. “The design of the Quattroporte is inspired by Maserati’s core stylistic principles: harmony of proportions, dynamic lines and Italian elegance,” explains Marco Tencone, head of the Maserati Design Centre. “It’s been kept simple and clear with a character line flowing alongthe side to define the strong volume of the rear wing, creating a very muscular look. The cabin is sleek with a three window treatment and frameless doors.” Even the engine is a work of art. Next, we call in on Philip Mould who has just sold The Cholmendeley Hilliard miniature, a rare portrait of an unknown lady of the Tudor court, for a not-so-miniature £200,000.
A pair of George III marquetry semi elliptical commodes with Irish provenance is the star attraction at Mallett, that stalwart of Dover Street antiques hub. “All this is very emphatic,” notes John, pointing to the lashings of evidently bespoke detail. Mallett attributes the commodes to the London cabinetmakers Ince & Mayhew. They were supplied to Robert and Catherine Birch in the 1770s for their home near Dublin, Turvey House. Duality resolved. John reminisces, “I picked up fragments of historic wallpaper from the derelict Turvey House, just before it was demolished in 1987.”
“The layered curtains filter the light through the open windows, imparting a soft indirect radiance to the room,” observes John. “The red banquette type seating, white chimney board and green painted frieze combine to form a most stylish Sicilian neoclassical interior. It forms the setting for a beautifully hung significant collection of paintings.” Guercino, Stomer, Titan: all the greats are represented. “My life is crowded with incident. I’m off to a bidet party in Dresden.” In between, he’s restoring Marino Casino, Ireland’s finest neoclassical building.
“One day, Charlotte was leading a suffragettes march down O’Connell Street in Dublin,” relates Lucy, “when she met a brigade led by her brother.” Awkward. “Neither of them was quite sure what to do. By rights the Lord Lieutenant should have arrested the protestors!” Instead, they each moved to the side and continued marching in opposite directions.” Literally and metaphorically.
French Park in Roscommon was the Italian inspired French family’s Irish seat designed by the German born architect Richard Castle. Like Russborough, French Park was Castle’s 18th century take on Palladio with curvy colonnades attaching wings to a colossal main house. Drama set in stone. It was the seat of the Barons de Freyne before it was demolished in the 20th century. Charlotte Despard spent a lot of time at French Park where she was born. The current Lord de Freyne, Lucy’s cousin Charles, lives in Putney. “Hampstead and St John’s Wood are my neck of the woods. A few years back I visited Roscommon,” recalls Lucy, “but couldn’t find the house. Some of the locals pointed it out. It’s a pile of rubble now.”
Back to St James Theatre. “I got involved over 18 months ago when it was just a building site,” she explains. The location is an enclave of to-die-for Georgian houses opposite Buckingham Palace. “After the previous theatre burnt down, Westminster Council had a clear vision for the site. The Council granted permission for 35 flats but insisted on a replacement theatre as well. It’s been an exciting journey for the team.” Lucy works alongside creative director Robert Mackintosh, executive artistic director David Gilmore, executive theatre director Guy Kitchenn and James Albrecht, studio director.
“It doesn’t look like a stereotypical theatre, does it?” muses Lucy, gazing towards the contemporary open plan ground floor reception and sweep of marble staircase. “St James is multifunctional. You can come here for coffee downstairs and fine dining upstairs. There are some great Italian signature dishes and a varied series of seasonal menus. Oh and never mind The Goring, we do afternoon tea here too! You can come see a show or play in the main house. And there’s comedy and cabaret in the studio.”
“St James Theatre is privately funded which gives us tremendous freedom,” Lucy confirms, “We’re self funding. With all the arts cuts and changes to arts funding, art and business are increasingly intertwined. I believe we’re at the forefront of this approach. We’ve secured a five year deal with Create Victoria which is fronted by Land Securities. We’ve got a lot of local support as well.”
The joy of building anew means there isn’t a bad seat in the house. No awkward pillars – actually make that no pillars at all – in this theatre thanks. Just a shallow curve of seats descending to the stage below in ever decreasing arcs. Comfort is key in the quietly decorated interior. Drama is saved for the stage. “It’s a highly successful theatre for actors and the audience alike,” Lucy observes. “It’s got terrific acoustics – pitch perfect for classical concerts!”
“So far we’ve hosted five plays, all wonderfully different, from Sandi Toksvig’s Bully Boy to Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs. In our first six months we even received an Olivier nomination.” A huge show is planned for next year. Lucy reveals a series of spoilers will be released in the run up to a September announcement. Next year’s a big year for her family history too. She’s planning a large scale event in honour of her great grandfather to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the 1st World War. Australia House on the Strand is the venue. Sir John French attended its opening in 1918.
Lucy herself cuts quite a dash, complementing her innate prettiness with millinery zeal. Her theatrical headpieces have become something of a fixture at premieres. When the theatre’s staircase, designed by Mark Humphrey, was unveiled, she wore – what else? – a maquette of the staircase. To scale, of course. “I used to make a lot of my hats,” she says. “Recently I’ve been trying something a bit different – a collaboration with a local florist. Orchids are great – they last all evening without drooping.” Her most extraordinary hat to date was a three foot sofa atop an extravagance of ostrich feathers. She wore it to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. “It was properly upholstered by a Liverpudlian furniture maker.” Was it not a little heavy? “Darling, by mid afternoon I’d got used to it.” And with that, Lady Lucy French leaves the building.
Structure by David Plaksin celebrates the artist’s fascination with graphic design and photography. A new body of work, it also represents his artistic sensitivity toward visual objects with strong associative potential. Plaksin graduated from the prestigious Serov Leningrad Art College in 1957 and from 1975 onwards he was part of the Leningrad Gorkoma artistic movement. In 1980 he became an active member of the Union of Russian Artists which allowed him to join the National Federation of Artists a decade later. Despite his membership of various groups, Plaksin does not align himself with any one group of St Petersburg artists. His atypical experimentation with various painting media allows for a constant rebirth of form and content over the course of his long career.
In addition to his ongoing engagement with oil and tempura, during the Soviet era, Plaksin worked as a book designer and illustrator. He drew typography by hand, cutting and gluing shapes together to create graphic compositions. The material quality of language continues to interest the 77 year old artist. Language for him is aural, oral, cultural, visual, literal and metaphorical. It’s part of socio political history. Letters can be objects just as words and concepts can be abraded beyond their original meaning. His overriding interest in representation, semblance, transformation and ultimately meaning has led him to fuse form and subject. In Structure, calligraphy is magnified to architecture and architecture is reduced to pattern. His ten monochromatic and five polychromatic digital prints onto aluminium line the walls of Erarta.
A 20 piece artwork called Sankt-Petro-Lenin-Burg spells out the hyphenated history of St Petersburg, formerly known as Leningrad and prior to that, Petrograd, before returning to its original name in 1991. The names and evocations of the city are used to depict both urban and national identity. The Communist buildings which form the basis of Plaksin’s Architecture series were built to represent strength and power. But he breaks them apart. Brutalist, Constructivist and Stalinist buildings take on a decorative role. The lattice-like framework of built form is raised, rotated, made transparent and overlaid. Approximations of letterforms appear, their apparent alphabetic simplicity belying ever intensifying depth of meaning.
Erarta’s flagship, the Museum of Contemporary Russian Art, is housed in a late Stalinist classical building of palatial proportions in St Petersburg. Buildings, like letters, tell stories. This one says Soviet era in its rustication and rows of columns but above the parapet electric red lettering proclaims E-R-A-R-T-A. A new era, a new use, a new name. Indoors, simple white walls and lighting allow the art to speak without interruption. The Erarta Museum is the largest private museum of contemporary art in Russia, exhibiting over 2,000 works by 150 artists across five floors. Erarta Galleries, already established in London, New York, Zürich and St Petersburg, are opening in Hong Kong in 2013.
Artist Suresh Dutt’s conceptual framework integrates drawing with sculpture. A translation of the two dimensional onto multiple three dimensional planes, so to speak. He applies and deconstructs geometric forms and grid structures into space and onto surfaces. Immersive sculptures are devised that explode into an unknown yet certain dimension.
Suresh prescribes a pragmatic approach to his creative endeavours. He provides efficient solutions which resolve the relationship between two and three dimensions. This analysis reaches a fait accompli – in the present – with his recent major work.
Winning the First@108 Public Award in 2011 enabled Suresh to create a sculpture outside the conventional confines of a white cube gallery space. The stereotypical artistic context with its three dimensional limitations is replaced by an exposed public space and all its embroiled complexities. To add a further layer to this contextual complexity, the sculpture was commissioned to inhabit two urban, but very distinct, built environments. The first (temporary) setting was in front of an Edwardian villa on Old Brompton Road, South Kensington. The second (permanent) setting is Montgomery Square in Canary Wharf.
An ornate red brick traditional enclosed backdrop in West London; a geometric mirrored contemporary exposed backdrop in East London. Suresh’s chromatic response is ingeniously simple. Paint it blue. An apparent simplicity of form – line drawn, no less (no more) – belies the intensity of his thought process. An hypothesis is presented to the viewer. He explains,
“When we view an object in space, we are able to gauge the scale of that object by using visual information surrounding that object and previously learned knowledge. We scale the object in relation to other objects the size of which we already know and comprehend. This information and understanding is essential when we draw a three dimensional object or convert an object into an image.”
Suresh contemplates that the visual effect of foreshortening can be used to create the illusion of depth on a two dimensional surface. This allows the drawing of the object to retain the same scale as the actual three dimensional object. He enthuses, “I wanted to construct a physical representation of foreshortening in three dimensional space through the drawing of a cube. The cube is the most easily perceived and recognised geometric structure.”
This desire stems from a concern about the way a person’s perception can be altered. An unorthodox paradox emerges. A parallel lined world arises. The starting point for him is something that is universally understood.
Immersed in art theory, Suresh applies anamorphosis, the principle method of manipulating perspective. Anamorphosis is a distorted projection or perspective which requires the viewer to use special devices or to occupy a specific vantage point to reconstitute an image. Lines and shapes create an alternating perspective. It becomes impossible to retain the two and three dimensional aspects together in one view.
Suresh manipulates spatial perception to great effect in this sculpture. The viewer is left disorientated in self made illusions. It exclaims, “We know nothing about space!” Euclidian geometry and the assumption of space are questioned. Even the tense of the sculpture’s name, Drawing Cube Blue, exudes uncertainty in the dimension of time.
An equally brilliant and academic accompanying solo exhibition in the Salon Gallery of Dora House explores light and perception through reflection. Suresh’s ongoing fascination with the structure of the cube inspires the creation of objects of unsettling ambiguity. Visible yet invisible, physical but intangible, they exist where volume and surface collide.
His work will soon occupy a third type of space. Frenetic urbanity superseded by bucolic countryside, brownfield to greenfield, further afield a leftfield variation of Drawing Cube Blue will form part of a country house estate collection. Watch this space. Although Suresh may make us question if it is a space. Or even his field.
Like Oedipus, “We saw of old blue skies and summer seas,” while channel hopping for afternoon tea. That unmistakeable five star feel. The familiar sound of crunchy gravel, stepping out of the car (carriage doors, please) to be greeted by the soothing sound of a gently flowing fountain, open entrance doors set in an archway offering a vista beyond of manicured striped lawns, French doors on either side revealing plumped up cushions on well sprung sofas, the scent of camomile candles floating through the air. Where better than the terrace of Longueville Manor in Jersey to enter a discourse on Environmental art, in an exponential swirl of increments bereft of presumption?
Is Environmental art a necessary classification in mid 20th century art? In order to answer this question, it is prudent to distinguish between two ways in which art may be related to the environment. These are approximately conveyed in the traditional antithesis between Classical and Romantic. The Classical artist presumes an established harmony between the forms in art and those in the outside world; the Romantic is aware of a disproportion.
This distinction operates in a less precise way between the fields of Kinetic and Pop art. Both are concerned with sending a special resonance into the environment. Both place great emphasis on the role of the viewer. But they differ in the relationship established between viewer and work. When Robert Dowd included a real apple and an apple painted according to the laws of perspective in the same composition, he was undoubtedly commenting upon the relationship of art to environment. The real apple was an intermediary between the canvas and the world. Sometimes it appears to belong to the environment. Other times, to the implausible shape of the canvas. It becomes a roving ambassador for Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘gap between art and life’.
An analogy is found with the paintings of Jesús Soto. They also depend on the interaction of an illusionistic background and the real objects which hang in front of it. While Dowd depended on a knowledge of pictorial conventions for effect, Soto used the disposition of the human retina. Dowd succeeds in immobilising the viewer by presenting a combination which distorts the implications of pictorial perspective. Soto, though, makes the viewer aware of mobility since it is only by passing in front of his work that its delicate spatial structure can be appreciated.
Thus the notion of Environmental art can be applied to at least two different kinds of work. Firstly, the ‘anxious’ object which illustrates a disproportion between the work of art and the environment. Secondly, and reversing Rauschenberg’s terminology, the ‘secure’ object which serves as a natural extension to the exploration of space. It is a helpful classification in mid 20th century art.
It is this second category which presents the widest range of possibilities. The Pop artist worked through existing media of representations since his output almost inevitably depended upon a tension between the object and how it is conveyed. In practice he was confined to isolated works of painting or sculpture. A notable exception to this rule is the work of Claes Oldenburg. His 1970 exhibition at the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery of sculpted ‘meat’ on rows of marble shelves resembled a Parisian butcher’s shop. But Oldenburg was concerned not so much with environment as with context. In his work the act of representation becomes non contextual placement. The plaster cast meat and the plastic typewriter are inherently preposterous because they are so blatantly remote from their original functions. A disregard for real space is revealed.
On the other hand, there is no problem of context for the Kinetic artist, no obstacle to the free elaboration of forms within space. Kinetic works automatically form part of the environment since they involve the viewer in direct physiological action or reaction. Whether it is a matter of virtual, literal or induced movement, the viewer is aware of his own responses of movement in the dialogue.
Yet there would be no advantage in using the term Environmental if it was synonymous with Kinetic. There is a difference, not simply in degree, but also in kind between works designed to animate an existing environment and works which create an environment of their own. This can be expressed as the distinction between environmental art and Environmental art.
Kinetic art is environmental art not simply because of the aesthetic factor but also because of the methods by which it was produced. Victor Vasarely’s 1950s work is an early example of the way in which the abandonment of traditional materials led to a new environmental status for art. He worked with maquettes, using projectors to determine what scale they should be constructed to in the ‘public’ versions. It is the ‘functional’ nature of the work that is important in this instance. Vasarely did not merely design specific works for specific settings, a task any artist might undertake. His method of working was inseparably linked with the notion of function since the maquette would remain no more than a blueprint if commissions were not made from it.
At the 1964 Documenta III exhibition at Cassel, the section entitled ‘Bild and Raum’ allowed a wide variety of artists to arrange their work in an environment of their choice. Sam Francis’ three painted panels were a respite from the Rococo of the entrance hall of the Basel Kunstgalle. Louise Nevelson’s dead black reliefs combined to form a small solemn room. But the seven works by Vasarely did more than lend character to the surrounding space.
Beyond their application to a particular setting, they testified to the existence of a type of creation by its very nature divorced from the traditional systems of production and exhibition. The generality of their pictorial language and the lucidity of their organisation suggested a reintroduction of traditional Classical harmony. Far from being dehumanised, they gave no hint of disequilibrium between the works of art and the outside world.
The conviction that the Kinetic artist was creating a new form of order to satisfy a human instinct that makes itself known not simply in the gallery and museum but in the community at large, was not confined to Vasarely. A decade earlier Gregorio Vardanega had proclaimed. “Luminosity, precision, harmony and especially space are elements which give a new significance to the work of art – they bring with them joy, optimism and perhaps even a less equivocal type of conduct, making their contribution towards a fuller life.”
There is of course an often insurmountable problem of realising the projects which an artist of this leaning will naturally devise. Vardanega’s project for a 20 metre high tower, with a sequence of flashing lights and corresponding sound effects, remained unexecuted beyond maquette form. Vasarely called for a new class, “the Toscaninis of the visual arts”, to investigate and carry out the environmental projects of artists. One fully signed up member had already emerged. Bernard Lassus had begun approaching the problem of animating the environment from an architect’s point of view, having carried out numerous projects in buildings.
This type of mediation between the artist and the wider environment only became accepted by the late 1960s and the beginning of the following decade. Until then, Vasarely and Vardanega were obliged to work within the previously established systems of presentation. They produced their works mainly for exhibition in galleries and museums. But times they were a-changing. Artists and groups of artists started turning to the different subject of creating an artificial environment which the viewer was able to affect, and even transform, by his own actions. Environmental art with a capital E had arrived.
The Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel theorised on the emerging movement. When they presented their first Labyrinthe at the 1963 Paris Biennale, the Groupe explained that this composite work was “in one sense a transposition onto an architectural scale of some of the principal aspects of their work”. They added that it was also a pointer towards new experiments involving the participation of the viewer. In the same year, the Groupe’sJulio Le Parc provided this description of a projected ‘place of activation’,
“In this place there would be neither pictures hung from the walls, nor actors; neither passive spectators nor masers nor pupils; simply certain elements, and people with time to spare. This hypothetical space could be a large room 15 by 15 by 6 metres in size, all white, with a system of panels and mobile bridges. Alternatively, a series of 50 centimetre cubes could be assembled to create different floor levels and masses.”
In concentrating their attention almost exclusively on the interaction between viewer and work, the Groupe were making a decisive departure from the systems of presentation characteristic of the visual arts. But they were not separating themselves from other forms of artistic activity. Even the choice of the word ‘Labyrinthe’ opened up a field of reference.
The aesthetic of Labyrinthe suggests a common determination to attack what Alain Robbe-Grillet called “the romantic heart of things”. It also indicated a kinship between the two strands of Kinetic art. When Joel Stein of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel criticised the ‘medieval’ view that a work of art addresses itself to the ‘noble regions’ of the mind, he echoed Vasarely’s farewell to the “art of the old world, the angel and the devil”. In fact the strands of Environmental art and environmental art may be drawn together. Both the planning of architectural projects and the construction of ‘Labyrinthes’ may be seen as mid 20th century attempts to achieve an unproblematic relationship between art and the outside world, to eliminate the anxiety which hovers round the corners of the picture frame.
Is Environmental art a necessary classification in mid 20th century art? Is art necessary? By definition, no. Art by its very nature isn’t necessary. Classifications are useful though. They’re neat, sometimes too neat. The phrase ‘Environmental art’ may not have the zing of Pop or Op or Dada but it was a movement in its own right and should be used as a category of art which emerged in the mid 20th century. Earthworks, Land art and Site Specific art would also emerge, overlapping and interweaving. Later that century Robert Smithson would build his jetty, David Nash would construct his tree sculptures and Ian Hamilton Finlay would create his garden. More cucumber sandwiches, anyone?