Ruminations and Art Highlights of 2019

It has been a very weird year for an array of reasons, both personal and political. As many of you surely are, I'm having a hard time getting my head around much of what is happening in the world, and depending on how severe this has been, my love for art has both helped and hindered my mind and spirit (sometimes, visiting art exhibitions when the world is burning has felt like a frivolous, vacuous thing to do). Looking back, some things have been a total mess, but I absolutely refuse to lose perspective; experiencing difficulties really helps build it. Perhaps this is reflected in the art I've enjoyed this year. With this in mind, and factoring in that I have not really been able to travel this year and can only comment on what I have seen, here are my top picks of 2019. They have given me total joy in one way or another and have certainly contributed to my motivations for the start of the 20s.

For 2020? I am manifesting myself to be assertive in saying yes or no (which is incredibly hard for a Libra), not being afraid to promote myself, bringing warm and loving people back into my life and regaining perspective to help others. So on an entirely separate note, here are my highlights from 2019:

Le Bourgeois - Stephan Dillemuth 'Diskodekorationen: From Another Century' (4 October - 3 November 2019)

For this total surprise of an exhibition at Le Bourgeois, a tiny former retail space in Catford, south London, artist Stephan Dillemuth used personal experiences of Chicago house music to create a moving and stimulating mixed- and multi-media show. I reviewed it back in October.

Tate Britain - Mark Leckey 'O' Magic Power of Bleakness' (24 September 2019 - 5 January 2020)

Video still from Mark Leckey’s Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD 2015
© Mark Leckey, photo: Mark Blower

Another exhibition merging music and contemporary art seamlessly, Mark Leckey's solo show at Tate Britain revived my interest in institutional shows just in time before the end of the year. With a huge replica of a motorway bridge on the M53, as soon as you walk into the space you are placed directly into Leckey's world; you are within the narrative; sit down as Leckey tells stories of bygone eras which are eerily familiar to the present day. Archival footage of dancefloors throughout the years are charming as well as masterfully put together with layers of sound and different lighting transitions.

White Cube Bermondsey - Tracey Emin 'A Fortnight of Tears' (6 February - 7 April 2019)

Tracey Emin, Mother, 2017. Bronze, 266cm x 177cm x 235cm. White Cube, London

This was one that was so prolific at the start of the year that I almost gave it a miss. When there's a great deal of buzz around a show, I feel like I've already seen it once it's been posted on social media (read: Instagram) hundreds of times. However I am so glad I made it to Bermondsey to see Tracey Emin's show; delicately and sensitively put together, yet in using harsh materials such as bronze and neon there is no doubt as to the master of Emin's work. Perhaps naively I felt closer to the artist after the experience, (it was an experience, as the paintings and sculptures took over the whole of the gallery) and felt a unique response, which sat between identifying Emin's strength of character and an unnerving ability to deal with, and express, trauma.

Enclave Projects - Helena de Pulford 'Simnel' (18 - 26 August 2019)

Helena de Pulford, Do Nothing Forever, 2019. Steel, paraffin wax, microcrystalline wax, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

A highly impressive independent show by London-based artist Helena de Pulford was hosted over the summer at Enclave Projects, a versatile exhibition space in Deptford. 'Simnel' was my first experience of de Pulford's work and this unassuming, simply produced exhibition was perfect for the headspace I was in at the time; quiet, reflective, and was a small exploration into masculinity and the Catholic faith in the twenty-first century. This was a real highlight of the art calendar for me.

Goldsmiths Centre of Contemporary Art - Tony Cokes 'If UR Reading This it's 2 Late Vol. 1' (29 September 2019 - 19 January 2020)

Still: Tony Cokes, The Queen is Dead, Fragment 2, 2019 (video still). Courtesy of Tony Cokes; Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.

Goldsmiths CCA has hosted a range of impressive exhibitions, each with a reliably high production value, but one really grabbed my attention and made me sit and reflect more than the others. American artist Tony Cokes' exhibition 'If UR Reading This it's 2 Late Vol. 1' borrows elements from hip hop, philosophy, colour theory and sound. On paper this sounds like an awfully try-hard combination, but the arresting sounds of my favourite genre of music, Detroit house, among others, remind us of the impact of black practitioners in developing the music contemporary audiences enjoy today. I don't usually bond with video works, so when I do it's certainly worth writing home about, and the combination of incredible sound quality, salient issues and using text gradually make this a stimulating show that burns through your brain.

Marlborough Gallery - Magdalena Abakanowicz 'Corporeal Materiality' (12 November 2019 - 18 January 2020)

Installation view: Magdalena Abakanowicz, Corporeal Materiality, 12 November 2019 - 18 January 2020. Marlborough Gallery, London. Photo copyright Luke Walker

This stunning show at Mayfair's Marlborough Gallery came as a total surprise to me (which is always the best, most authentic art experience in my opinion), but with its striking interior design of charcoal grey walls alongside large-scale intricate sculptural works evoking a deep sadness, it is a necessary primer in the Polish artist's work prior to her forthcoming solo show at Tate Modern in 2020. The works have a unique quality of feeling like war memorials with an almost tactile element making you feel close to them. A truly serious show embracing scarce resources of Soviet-controlled Poland. 

Pace Gallery - Leo Villareal (22 November 2019 - 18 January 2020)

Leo Villareal, Detector, 2019, LEDs, custom software, electrical hardware, steel, 320 cm × 1,153.2 cm × 7.6 cm. © Leo Villareal

An absolute treat for the senses and the mind, American artist Leo Villareal's show at Pace Gallery's London iteration is an inspiration for engaging curation techniques. LED lights and custom software created by the artist form what can only be described as a "beguiling visual experience". Technology and art are becoming so intertwined now that understanding the former is important in understanding the path of contemporary artists. Villareal's work is like fireworks without the sensory overload. Calm yet spiky and fresh. 

Soft Opening - Sara Knowland 'Mostly Women' (3 April - 4 May 2019)

Image courtesy of Soft Opening

Soft Opening has been one of the hot new gallery names this year, and its space in Bethnal Green was host to a small selection of paintings by Sara Knowland. While they were small in number, they had a seriously big impact; I wrote about them for Gallyry Magazine. 

Castor Projects - Lindsey Mendick 'The Ex Files' (15 March - 27 April 2019)

Installation view: Lindsey Mendick, Ex Files, 15 March - 27 April 2019. Castor Projects, London

If the exhibitions in this list have anything in common, and they largely don't, it is their ability to help me lose myself in the art. Again bringing sound into the mix, Lindsey Mendick's ceramic-heavy show at Castor Projects felt like I was transported to the artist's bedroom. Clever and intimate, minimal love letters and mini stories were written on ceramic post-it notes on the wall, lining a deceitfully simple installation at the centre of the space with surreal, feminine and textured details. With a looping soundtrack of love songs, I was pacing around the space thinking about The One That Got Away, even though it meant delving some way back into past memories. Bringing humour to difficult chapters in life is not easy at the best of times, never mind in the art world. I loved this exhibition!

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