American artist Mel Bochner’s exhibition If the Colour Changes is currently being displayed over the ground and first floor of the Whitechapel Gallery. As you enter you are greeted by a huge, colourful canvas – Blah, Blah, Blah (2011). It is one of many paintings Bochner has recently produced as part of a word-related project – using the thesaurus to inspire lexical paintings that both celebrate and question the meaning of language.
Behind the canvas-adorned wall, there is an artwork spread across the gallery floor – blue paint sprayed onto newspaper in the shape of a square and then rearranged to create geometric patterns. This is the type of artwork you feel you should stare at for a long time to look as if you care about it and are thinking about the deeper, hidden meaning. But the truth is – I didn’t really get it – or care about it.
There are a selection of thoughtful quotes from other artists hand-written and framed, which I liked:
But the best of his work, in my opinion, is on the first floor. It begins with a bit more philosophy:
…but then leads into the long, whitewashed gallery which Bochner has filled with mind-blowingly colourful canvases. For this work, he chose one word from the thesaurus and then painted all the synonyms in order – onto large canvases.
This is the type of art that is bound to garner the response: I could have done it myself. And my answer would be – yes, maybe you could have. But you didn’t, did you? Mel Bochner did it. And did it well.
The juxtaposition of negative words and bright rainbow colours is part of the appeal…
In the right hand painting below, he’s used pretty pastel colours to paint the various synonyms for ‘obscene’ – pornographic, vile, debauched:
Other canvases are filled with phatic utterances:
For a slice of culture, and to brighten an otherwise bleak Saturday – this exhibition was perfect. And, in retrospect, perhaps I should have given more time to the ground floor work – reading the meaning behind all the conceptual photography and the newspaper piece. Alas – I didn’t.
There is another room in the gallery exhibiting the work of Maurizio Cattelan.
Straight ahead, upon entering, a hand with the middle finger erect – and all other fingers ampuated – hangs upside down from the ceiling. To the right, a miniature man in a felt suit is hanging from a peg. For some reason, it’s hilariously funny:
To your left, a taxidermy squirrel is sat at the kitchen table (based on Cattelan’s childhood kitchen) – with his head on the table. There’s a gun on the floor: he’s committed suicide. The washing up left in the sink suggests he just couldn’t bear to go on any longer:
This small room is full of dark humour – a very different humour to Bochner’s canvasses – and works well as it gives you something to ponder as you walk back downstairs to leave the gallery (via Giuseppe Penone’s Spazio di Luce – a bronze cast of a tree stretching the length of the room).
Cattelan’s installations question the futility and hopelessness of life – but using humour makes it both more powerful and more digestible.
All the exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery are free – fantastic if you’re looking for a cheap day out in London but it got me thinking about the connotations of pay-for VS free visual arts exhibitions. Another blog post to follow…