For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of the month and blogging about it.

Sunday 9 August

Installation: James Richards selects from the V-A-C collection
Place: Whitechapel Art Gallery

The V-A-C Foundation describes itself as a not-for-profit organisation supporting contemporary Russian art. So it’s odd that not one of the quartet of British artists, invited to curate items from its collection at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, have gone for anything from Russia. James Richards, the installation artist who is the last of the four, has chosen to make an immersive environment for a single work, Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait (1953). I went to see it on the basis that, irrespective of what Richards brings to the party, anything by Bacon is worth a visit, especially when it’s most of the time hidden from view in a particular collection.  


The picture is an example of what Bacon is famous for doing in his “screaming pope” period. The sitter occupies a studded leather club chair, surrounded by a blackness in which the details of arms, legs, background is elusive – a matter of guesswork. The man is evidently dressed like the chairman of the board, an undertaker, a mafia godfather – or even, avant la lettre, a Russian oligarch. The gallery label says he is vulnerable, but I see a man in control. His lips are shut (no scream), his eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses are half closed, his head is tilted a little back, perhaps in appraisal or because he is listening.


Richards has designed a deliberately banal setting for Bacon’s modernist icon, something like a hotel conference room, or a multi-faith airport chapel. The walls are draped in a shade of pale caramel, the lights are dim (much more so than you see in the photograph)  and four plain benches are arranged sideways in front of the gold-framed painting.

If the sitter is indeed listening, he has many confusing sounds to attend to. Richards’s loud soundtrack is a roughly 15-minute loop. As I went in I heard classical chords on a piano, rising in pitch and accompanied by a sound like shifting gravel. This gives way to some frenetic electronic noises, bells and a solo cello, before morphing into Peggy Lee singing ‘I’m Sorry’ and then into radiophonic-style musique concrete with birdsong and waves churning across the shingle. Apart from Peggy Lee, the human voice is absent except for a few incoherent squeaks and coos, and some gentle sighing and intakes of breath.

That’s more or less it. I’m not quite sure whether or not Richards’s work enhanced my interest in the Bacon, but I stayed a good half an hour and left thinking it had been far from a wasted visit.   

Posted on August 9th, 2015


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