The dark side of nature is the theme common to two exhibitions currently running at the arts centre Kings Place in London. Death and mortality are centre stage in the Pangolin gallery, where many of the photographic and sculptural works on show by David Bailey feature human and animal skulls. On the floor below eight large format paintings by Anthony Whishaw RA depict spectral and eerie woodlands.
David Bailey is an internationally renowned British photographer, but his reputation as a sculptor is, as the exhibition catalogue observes, virtually nonexistent. Indeed, the catalogue goes on to report that Bailey “does not claim to be a sculptor”. On the strength of this exhibition, it is easy to see why. The disjuncture between the prowess in the photographic medium and the mediocrity in the sculptural is jarringly apparent.
The photographs are, as would be expected, technically unimpeachable. Most consist of near-typological images of animal crania; stark, pristine, almost diagrammatic. The images of gorilla skulls, however, stand out. With their dislodged teeth, fragmented jaws and charred looking bone they possess a horror and agony which cannot help but call forth morbid reflections on death.
On the other hand the sculptures – largely bronze casts – are a mishmash (quite literally) of assemblages, some depicting skulls, others faux-naif totemic statues which, whilst attesting to Bailey’s passion for Picasso, have none of the latter’s wit, verve, or stylistic brilliance. They display little attention to the relationship between subject and material nor any particular sculptural technique – perhaps no surprise given Bailey’s claim that “there is no difference between a photograph or a sculpture or a building, it’s all part of the creative process.” The Kings Place blurb describes the sculptural works as “glinting with a touch of humour”. I fear that the only humour that these works elicit will be snorts of derision.
Meanwhile there is nothing comic about the Anthony Whishaw woodland paintings in the Balcony North Gallery. The motif of the forest as a foreboding space tinged with fear and mystery has been a commonplace in art and literature for centuries, and it is put to powerful use in these “Images on the Edge of Perception”. Despite their near-abstract and graphic qualities, at times they resolve suggestively into three-dimensional space. Lyminge Forest is the best example of this; the woodland is unerringly present despite its flat, monochromatic and ostensibly ‘untreelike’ elements. Its juxtaposition of graphic outlines, sharp chiaroscuro and deep three dimensional space endows the painting with an uncanny quality. Lyminge Forest III has a more palpable ambiance of threat and its black and brown tonal scheme seems to carry the forest’s primeval charge. Whishaw has described these as images “in the process of making [themselves] visible”. The contrast between their nascent state with the ancient “ever-presence” of the forest motif makes for a compelling and melancholy beauty.