Exhibitions and shows visited since September 2019

‘There’s always more to see, if you look’

Ali Smith

TAN TSZE CHOR, Living with Ink, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

The paintings and calligraphic images collected over decades by Dr Tan Tsze Chor celebrate the power of black ink on white paper. There’s a visceral power to the exhibition, something I always feel when confronted by the tones of black and white.

HERA BÜYÜKTASÇIYAN, Singapore Biennale, Singapore National Gallery

Broken masonry and fragments of ceramic wall tile have been anthropomorphised by Hera Büyüktasçiyan to reflect on migration and frontiers. The artist says that the small bronze feet attached to the cracked tiles represent ‘burdened history moving in slow motion.’ There’s a slightly comical, perky quality to the works however, which I thought dented the gravity of the idea.

NICK KNIGHT, Roses, Albion Barn, Oxfordshire

There was a serene beauty to this show but I found myself transfixed more by the technical prowess than by the intensity of the art. The images are huge, some as tall as the human frame, and they’ve all been shot on iPhone. The technical mastery comes in the printing process; despite the vast scale of the pictures, there’s very little pixelation. The master printer who produced the final show was guarded about how it was done, but it apparently relied on applying water to the images as they emerged from the printer.

© Nick Knight, Roses

CAI GUO-QIANG, Gunpowder, Ashmolean, Oxford

Here was another show where I found myself distracted by technique. Ultimately, the trick of blowing up gunpowder on canvas, porcelain, silk and paper loses its power when repeated over and over again. If Cornelia Parker had blown up shed after shed repeatedly, the work’s visceral power would have been dissipated. Cai directed the visual effects for the Beijing Olympic Games and, to me, his work relies too much on spectacle.

PHILIP GUSTON, Locating the Image, Ashmolean, Oxford

The power of Guston’s black lines has always drawn me to his lithographs. Guston was fascinated by Franz Kafka, particularly his ideas about circularity. Guston said that his drawing line ‘never finishes itself with the thought, but is “circular”, endlessly in movement.’ Ultimately, he argued that ‘what you are left with is not the “thought”, but a sense of forces, “abstract” powers.’

KIKI SMITH, I am a Wanderer, Modern Art Oxford

Perhaps perversely, in an exhibition featuring huge tapestries, prints, paintings and sculpture, it was to one tiny object that I was most drawn: Yolk, 1999 sits at the back of a vitrine. It’s luscious, shiny, apparently liquid – as yolk-like as it’s possible to be. Yet it’s made of solid worked-glass. I kept returning to it, desperate to pick it up. It was a reminder that exquisite execution can elevate the ordinary from the banal.

JULIE COCKBURN, Telling it Slant, Flowers Gallery

I made a connection between Julie Cockburn’s incorporation of found photographs and my own use of found postcards. By embellishing her images with exquisite embroidery and beading she is both layering her work and rewriting narrative. Instead of using the term layering, however, she says that she’s ‘paradoxically unmasking’ the images. It’s an intriguing phrase.

© Julie Cockburn, 2019

TIM WALKER, Wonderful Things, V & A

So much has been written about this exhibition, but it’s worth noting that the photographer remembers something which it can be all too easy to leave out – a sense of humour. The delight engendered by the eccentricity of the posing and juxtapositions, is worth remembering.


The sculptor’s invitation to scramble through seven kilometres of looped aluminium tubing is hard to resist. The enjoyment of viewers in the gallery is a reminder that too often we’re told not to touch, not to stand too close, to make no noise. Here, the spectator becomes not viewer but viewed, not spectator but actor.


Again, so much has been written about this. I would add, however, that the sheer scale of the show undercuts the intense, concentrated power of William Blake’s work. The far smaller William Blake: Apprentice and Master at the Ashmolean in 2014 preserved the intensity of Blake’s vision.

MARK LECKEY, O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain

The ambition of this replica of a Merseyside motorway bridge is undeniable. But for some reason it felt like a trick. After I’d walked around the darkened room a few times, weaving between faux concrete stanchions, I tired of the game. I returned to MOMA in Oxford once more to Kiki Smith’s perfect, glass egg yolk. Each are replicas; one is vast, the other is minuscule; one is wearying, the other is a delight.