Street Art comes in from the cold 

[Image: Cosimo Casoni, Untitled, 2021, oil, acrylic, spray paint, fingerprints on canvas, 230 x 200 cm (90 x 78 in)]

New exhibition “Post-Vandalism” blends Street Art and fine art in a vigorous, discordant blend.

As Matt McMurry shows me around the gallery he co-founded, he speaks passionately and eloquently about the art around us, which blend fine-art detachment and Street-Art attitude. McMurry talks about the boldness and grasp of colour that graffiti artists acquire and says this is what excited him about the work he chose for Post-Vandalism (Omni Gallery, 56-7 Eastcastle Street, London, W1, 20 October-12 November 2022).

“These artists have gone beyond the street. They’ve left that behind but you can see it even though these are definitely gallery pieces.” We are standing in front of Moses & Taps’s spraypainted tarpaulin concertinaed over a metal footstep that you would find on a van. It has the appearance of a graffer’s intervention in a haulage yard but after contemplation seems more of a knowing reference to John Chamberlain’s crushed-car sculptures of the Sixties.

[Image: Moses & Taps, Shimms XXV, 2022, steel and spray paint, 212 x 120 cm (83 x 47 in)]

Occupying territory, promoting personal brands

McCurry talks about Street Artists occupying territory and promoting personal brands. In his previously gallery (in Seattle) he collaborated with Street Artists; in Omni, located just north of Oxford Street and split over two floors, he sees the opportunity to display art that is more ambitious and considered than what is usually found on the street.

The artists selected here carry a punchy no-holds-barred attitude but apply it to work that is more reflective and allusive than what is limited by temporary surface or hasty execution. Openness to material is apparent in the use of found objects and repurposed grounds. Most of the work bridges the space between sculpture and painting. Bram Bram has taken a slice of wall with bathroom tiles and applied paint and stickers; the printed text has degraded to the equivalent of visual static or Francis Bacon’s meaningless Letraset characters. In this piece – as in many of the others – there is a wilful distancing effect. The artists do not hit you with messages or theses, preferring to remain indirect. There is as much obscured, scoured and eroded on these surfaces as there is assertive paintwork.     

When political references come, they are oblique. Ricardo Passaporte’s spraypainted scene of politicians fighting in parliament takes the specificity out of the situation, laconically reducing the struggling figures to fuzzy flat shapes. This instance of sordid degeneration of civic life acquires a comforting decorative quality. His painting of cartoon children dancing in a circle appears like a food dye sprayed on to cake icing. Distanced by not diminished, it still has the charm of an illustration of an idealised childhood. A ceramic bust of a Putin-like figure sports a Pinocchio liar’s nose. Perhaps an understandable swipe – the artist is a Ukrainian refugee, now based in France.

Industrial Rococo

Alexandre Mosa Bavard’s Double Goose (2019) is a cement and resin cast of a puffer jacket, part-horror-movie effect, part rococo ceramic. The rococo comes to the fore in Stephen Burke’s freestanding painting-sculpture This Guy Loves His Job 2 (2022), which is equally playful and aggressive. A simple geometric painting is mounted in a section of railing; around the outside are different repelling devices (spikes, hooks, bladed wheels) that act like decorative flourishes one can find in rococo panels or picture frames. McMurry could have easily named this exhibition “Industrial Rococo”.  

[Image: Stephen Burke, This Guy Loves His Job 2, 2022, Steel, oil, spray paint, canvas and anti-climb guards, 200 x 400 cm (78 x 157 in)]

In another wall piece by Bram Bram – chain-link and tubular steel enlivened with applied stickers – seems a raffish take-off of 1980s Neo-Geo abstraction. More patterning comes in Bavard’s Auber (2022), which has sprayed paint recording where a (now absent) mesh had been draped as a distorted stencil over the canvas surface. Christopher Stead (part of a South London collective) appropriates Jackson Pollock’s spatter in an assemblage that affixes swatches of linen to the support canvas with eyelets. It is as if the artist is making survival raft out of the revered wreckage of Abstract Expressionism, not at all mocking.

Matt McCormick’s 2001 short film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal presents us with a proposition more outright humorous. The film follows the work of municipal workmen overpainting graffiti in Portland, Oregon. The simple effacement of vandalism is presented as an art movement, which – in its deployment of rough, floating patches of paint – echoes the High Modernism of Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann and the Russian Constructivists. It is thought-provoking in its thesis that the creative drive emerges unconsciously even in the act of covering vandalism and that these blocks of colour have their own muted poetry.

[Image: Nils Jendri, Ying Ying (2022), spray paint, acrylic on canvas, 155 x 120 cm (60 x 47 in) ]

Abstract Expressionism echoed

A more involved engagement with the Abstract Expressionism (in particular, Willem de Kooning’s black period of the 1940s) comes in Nils Jendri’s Ying Ying (2022). Jendri has used areas of black-and-white spray paint, partially masked to introduce unsettling optical effects. The patches, similarity of marks and consistent palette of black and white combine to fool the mind and eye. The calligraphic tautness and austerity make this the most rewarding picture in the exhibition.

Moritz Neuhoff’s large canvas of gestural space-filling is the least successful piece here, precisely because it seems preoccupied with the abstract painting of the 1990s and 2000s. It fills space rather than occupying it.

Post-Vandalism gathers a very wide array of artists from many countries, including Germany, France, Italy, the USA, Ukraine and the UK. It may not be a movement but it has real vitality and edge and that alone is valuable. On top of which, the art itself is playful and striking. It makes a strong overall impression, one not of unity but of shared attitudes. Omni is a gallery to keep an eye on.

Gawkers: Art and Audience in Late Nineteenth-Century France

Alexander Adams

Images and discussions of public spaces in Paris over the nineteenth century are dominated by certain types: the flâneur, the policeman, the child, the prostitute, the beggar, the crowd. Bridget Alsdorf, associate professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, looks at these types through the perspective of fine art, illustration and photography. She notes the badaud (French: gawker) as a common subject for consideration by writers and artists. “Badauds abound in late nineteenth-century art and literature, yet they have received only a minute fraction of the attention devoted to the flâneur. […] The badaud has been largely ignored. There are several reasons for this, but the crucial one is this: badauds’ passivity and collectivity run fundamentally counter to the pervasive model of modern identity exemplified by the flaneur, a free and active agent with a bounded, cultivated sense of self.” 

The author takes as her subject the way the badaud was seen by artists in the 1890s. “More than any other artist, Vallotton seized on badauds as a subject of deep significance to late nineteenth-century urban culture. The social intelligence and graphic significance of his work unlock the badaud’s importance to the art world of his time.” Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), the Swiss painter-printmaker, is taken as the quintessential artist of the Parisian street. His woodcut illustrations (made in the 1890s) of domestic interiors, public spaces and street scenes were popular and artistically influential. British readers may remember his wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2019. Two related artists which Alsdorf takes as her subjects are Vallotton’s fellow Nabi Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) as artists engaged by badauds, the life of the street and commercial art. All three worked for La Revue blanche, the literary-artistic periodical published 1891-1903.    

Alsdorf mulls Vallotton’s politics. His writings are inscrutable but some have seen the prints as sympathetic to anarchism, due to the inclusion of police violence and the largely good-natured depictions of crowds. This chimes with her own view. She is hostile towards those writers who are critical of crowds, calling it an “irredeemably top-down view”. The chapters are divided by the events that gave rise to the crowd, including crime, accident and entertainment. The crime story – both as fiction and journalism – was all the rage It was also a live scientific subject, with criminology, psychology and phrenology all vying to explain the boom in criminality in modern cities.

Alsdorf is on the look out for responses from Vallotton that are sympathetic towards crowds. She finds it disappointing that he does not reprove bystanders who watch two brawlers being taken off to gaol. Why should bystanders be supportive of these men? She detects implicit disapproval in Vallotton’s public execution, which the artist depicted a number of times, perhaps taking as subjects the guillotining of anarchist assassins. She contrasts Vallotton’s relatively ambiguous attitude to Jean-Léon Gerôme’s paintings, that treat the crowd at public spectacles as cruel and even predatory.

Honoré Daumier’s paintings and prints of theatre audiences are more varied and less negative than other French artists of the time. His images of art connoisseurs in a home and theatre audiences provided a teasing but warm view of the badaud bourgeois. Daumier’s lithographic illustrations in journals allowed him to poke fun at bastions of refined taste. Alsdorf sees later commentators as more critical of the crowd. “Later artists, echoing Maupassant, bristled at this, disturbed by what they saw as the theatricalized relations between art and its viewers. Drawing on Daumier selectively and darkening his humor, they pictured the audience as an intractable problem.”

Oddly, Alsdorf sees Degas as averse to depicting the audience. “He does not focus on the relationship between the audience and the performers but on the lack thereof, and his oblique perspectives make the viewers of his pictures conscious of the angle and quality of their attention. When viewing Degas’s work, we are almost always in a position of nearly looking away.” This seems to overlook the importance of his sketches of observers at horse races – the woman with the binoculars is an explicit reference to the distancing effect of the act of spectating – and the women visitors at the Louvre. If one were being generous with parameters, all those pictures of women watching others trying on hats might fall into the area of the observer observed.

Bonnard’s approach to figures on the street during his Nabi period (the 1890s) was more about body language, shape, movement and colour. The facial expression is both less important and less legible in his colour lithographs and his paintings. His album of colour lithographs Some Aspects of Parisian Life (1895-9) investigates reportage through essential shapes and atmosphere. The author speculates about the possible influence of the Lumière Brothers’ films of crowds, which commenced in 1895. These crowds were soon corralled by assistants of the filmmakers, as they threatened to impede the view of the filmed spectacle due to their curiosity. At this early stage, badauds were subjects, extras and onlookers of documentary filmmaking on the streets – as well as being the audience for the final films.

The book also assesses the modern spectacle of the shop window, newspaper kiosk and street poster, discusses how these new forms (designed to attract the badaud) lent themselves to commentary through fine art. Toulouse-Lautrec made posters for café-concerts, dancehalls and performers, which included views of onlookers. His inclusion of dramatic silhouettes of the crowd and the placing of the viewer on the dance floor changed the way such scenes were treated. The artist painted the exterior of a dancehall, turning it into a giant poster advertising itself. Among the portraits of the audience was one of Oscar Wilde, who was (at the time of painting) on trial in London – coverage of which was front-page news.

Gawkers covers the political subtext of images of onlookers, audiences and crowds, explaining how current events such as the trial of Oscar Wilde, the execution of anarchists and the Dreyfuss Affair became entangled with the reaction of people in public. The author’s research into the sources and histories of the era shed fascinating light on the subtly coded images that pass judgement mingled with observation. Alsdorf acts as a knowledgeable guide to Parisian art of the nineteenth century art, especially the prints of the newly popular Vallotton, linking the artists to influential poets and social critics of the time. Gawkers is recommended for enthusiasts of art of this period, as it effectively supplies a missing link for non-francophones, introducing them to the complex social signals and commentary that is present in the art we so often take for granted.   

Bridget Alsdorf, Gawkers: Art and Audience in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Princeton University Press, 2022, hardback, 296pp, fully illus., £48, ISBN 978 0 691 16638 4

“Henry Fuseli at the Courtauld”

“People talk about the increased moralism of the Victorian age. What often goes unsaid is that there must have been – and was – quite a lot of decadence and debauchery in the preceding era: the Georgian period. If you want evidence of that depravity, there is no better place to go this winter than the Courtauld Institute, London. Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) spent most of his professional life in London. A figure of controversy – acclaimed a genius, denounced as a madman, dismissed as a technical incompetent – Fuseli was a prominent artist in the Romantic movement.

Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism (ends 8 January 2023) is the first exhibition of Fuseli’s drawings of women, specifically the modern Georgian-period woman. Fuseli’s women can be depraved but are always elegantly attired. His witches are exquisitely costumed as they participate in unspeakable atrocities that Fuseli never reveals.

“At the heart of the exhibition is Sophia Rawlins (1762/3-1832), the artist’s English wife. When they met, she was already an artist’s model, a shady profession at this time. When they married in 1788, she was 25; he was 47. She continued to pose for him, and it seems they developed a collaborative relationship, with her spending hours on her appearance, at least partly to provide a vision of artificial female beauty for her husband to turn into art.”

Read the review for free on whynow here:

“Paul Modersohn-Becker: A Life in Art”

“One female painter we will hear more of this winter is Paula Modersohn-Becker, about whom Uwe Schneede has written a well-illustrated survey. An exhibition of Modersohn-Becker’s art will open at the Royal Academy (12 November 2022-12 February 2023) alongside art by Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Munther and Marianne Werefkin. 

A London training

“Paula Becker was born in Dresden in 1876 to a large middle-class family. Paula’s first intensive art training came in St John’s Wood Art School when she came to London for an extended stay over 1892-3. Her appetite whetted, and she undertook more art courses in Bremen and later in Berlin. 

Moving to the artists’ commune of Worpswede in 1898, Becker became a minor member as a newcomer to an existing group. She learned from fellow painters of similar outlooks and where she met (and painted) poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1901 Paula married Otto Modersohn. She did not see marriage as slowing her down. “Just because I am getting married, that is no reason not to become somebody.”…”

Read the full review for free on whynow? website here:

“Denis Wirth-Miller: Bohemian in the Bullrushes”

“What was going through Denis’s mind as he waited for his friend Francis Bacon to visit his solo exhibition? Trepidation, anticipation, pride? Bacon was an artistic superstar, a fierce wit and notoriously capricious. Denis had been his friend since the 1940s and had a hand in some of Bacon’s best early works. By 1977 Denis’s profile was dwarfed by Bacon’s, and the display of his landscape paintings (in a modest East Anglian venue) was only a small affair. Knowing Bacon’s volatility, Denis must have been a little apprehensive.

From Soho to East Anglia   

“The extraordinary life of British painter Denis Wirth-Miller (1915-2010) is like a history of the last century. The new exhibition Denis Wirth-Miller: Landscapes and Beasts (Firstsite, Colchester, 1 October until 22 January 2023) presents the best of his art and sheds light on three remarkable men: Denis Wirth-Miller, Francis Bacon and Richard “Dickie” Chopping, Wirth-Miller’s partner.

“Born in the First World War, Denis worked in textiles and window dressing before following his vocation as a painter. The exhibition includes paintings in Cubist and Neo-Romantic styles from the 1930s and 1940s when he studied alongside Lucian Freud. (They did not get on, then or later.)

“During the Second World War, Wirth-Miller met Chopping, and they became lovers. Despite constant rows – often fuelled by heavy drinking – “Dickie and Denis” remained devoted to each other for the next 60 years. In 2005, they became one of the first gay couples to enter a civil partnership. Chopping was a brilliant illustrator, beloved tutor at the Royal College and sometime novelist. His covers for James Bond novels are still hailed as classics. One layout for a Bond novel jacket is exhibited here…”

Read my full review for free here on whynow website:

“Abolish the Arts Council”

I am pleased to announce the publication of a new pamphlet.

Abolish the Arts Council

by Alexander Adams with David Lee

This pamphlet lays out the case for the abolition of the Arts Council. The priorities of the Arts Council are now political ones, not artistic, and are contrary to the welfare of the arts, the wider society and the population. The current public-model of arts funding is imperilled because of the takeover of the Arts Council by politically-orientated staff. However, there will be no easy solution, as the Arts Council is only one of many bodies in the culture sector that has been captured and degraded by activists. Abolish the Arts Council discusses the problems and potential routes to a solution.

Published by The Bournbrook Press and Golconda Fine Art Books, serial number TBP002, ISBN: 978-1-7395829-1-3

Paperback pamphlet, 20 pages, A5, £3.00, international shipping available.

To purchase a copy visit: