Academicians to spot in Venice: Phyllida Barlow’s British pavilion and more

Published 13 May 2017

From David Hockney’s portraits in palazzi to Phyllida Barlow’s swollen sculptures in the British Pavilion, here’s the must-see work by Royal Academicians in this year’s biennale.

  • From the Summer 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Venice may have inspired generations of landscape painters, but it is people rather than palaces that preoccupy the Royal Academicians exhibiting at the Venice Biennale this year, as the artists take their cue from political events at home and abroad.

    In the national pavilions of the waterside Giardini, at the nearby Arsenale – where artists of all nations exhibit side by side – and at the six-month-long festival’s collateral events (the exhibitions that amplify the Biennale’s themes throughout the city’s great Gothic buildings and public spaces), unease with a fragmented world is being rendered visual.

  • Phyllida Barlow, British Pavilion, Venice, 2017

    Phyllida Barlow, British Pavilion, Venice, 2017

    Phyllida Barlow’s British Council commission is at the Biennale Arte 2017 from 13 May to 26 November.

    Photo: Ruth Clark © British Council. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

  • Phyllida Barlow

    Phyllida Barlow RA is the artist chosen by a British Council-appointed committee to show for Britain this year. Her massive sculptural work extends beyond the interior spaces of the British pavilion in the Giardini, its 41 bulbous shapes spilling out of the building. It is titled folly. “Folly in the sense of an escapade or ridiculous activity,” she explains, “or a folly as a building, a piece of architecture that draws attention to itself. It’s a word that seems entirely appropriate to the times we are living in.”

    Barlow’s recent work has been characterised by the use of inexpensive, commonplace or industrial materials, and by inbuilt imperfections of balance and scale. In the British pavilion, the central room is dominated by a forest of columns that rise nine metres or more, but are not as substantial as at first glance – Barlow compares them to phantoms. Other rooms contain objects familiar and unfamiliar from Britain’s heritage.

    “These objects – an anvil, a balcony – are a way of looking at how the world presents itself, and its ephemerality,” Barlow continues. “We’ve seen 3,000-year-old buildings in the Middle East obliterated in a single strike. Making work while such major catastrophes are so present is contentious. But damage and reparation are very much part of my work’s processes and their final outcome, influenced by the comparatively trivial catastrophes of everyday life – at home, on the street, in the studio. Mine is an anthropological and forensic view as much as a creative one.”

    “The British pavilion is itself a folly built in 1909; it has a very Lutyens feel to it with its columns and steps. In my sculpture, I’ve used a lot of cement, and so there’s this greyness, which introduces an urban, London climate to a lambent north-Italian space. The pavilions on the Giardini have a faded glory that seem to echo the time we live in; they are somehow very fragile.”

  • Stephen Chambers RA with panel portraits from 'The Court of Redonda', 2016-17, on view at palazzo Ca’ Dandolo

    Stephen Chambers RA with panel portraits from 'The Court of Redonda', 2016-17, on view at palazzo Ca’ Dandolo

    Photography by SCS/Image courtesy of Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge

  • Stephen Chambers

    In preparing his collateral exhibition at the palazzo Ca’ Dandolo, painter Stephen Chambers RA also became preoccupied by ideas about society and community. His installation, The Court of Redonda, comprising 101 imagined panel portraits, envisages a utopian society dominated by those who create things, with fantastically ennobled subjects: The Honourable Moss-Gardener, Bard of the Kingdom, Countess of the Algorithm.

    Redonda is a tiny uninhabited island in the eastern West Indies that, in Chambers’ words, is “almost impossible to land on unless you are a seagull”. It was claimed in 1865 by a merchant trader, Matthew Dowdy Shiell, who crowned himself King of Redonda. The title has since been handed down across the decades. The king, until recently, Spanish writer Javier Marías, whose work Chambers encountered while living in Brooklyn, has continued the tradition of appointing an imaginary Redondan court of real people, based on their achievements not their birth, each with an honorific title – for example, Pedro Almodóvar (known as Duke of Trémula), William Boyd (Duke of Brazzaville), A.S. Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia). Chambers, fascinated by this ideal society, has created his own cast of characters in response.

    “I want them to be affirmative, with gender, age and ethnic diversity,” says Chambers. “It is a work about the benefits of inclusivity.” He is strongly influenced by Italian art, notably Piero della Francesca, whose Madonna del Parto he recalled in painting the dark, deep-set eyes of his own works. “I have a love affair with the country, and where I lived briefly as a young man.” His technique of scraping back his paint echoes both the distressed paintwork of Venetian palaces and the desecration of religious artworks seen in Siena.

    But it was in Brooklyn that he conceived The Court of Redonda, knowing that it needed a big venue. “I wanted it to be as big as an island: it is one piece.” It is hung in irregular, crossword-like blocks and runs along the palace’s piano nobile. Most of the panels measure 48cm x 39cm – this size being the most economic use of a 244cm x 122cm sheet of plywood – and they are designed to travel. “You could stick a stamp on the back of each one and post it home.”

  • Stephen Chambers, State of the Nation 3

    Stephen Chambers, State of the Nation 3, 2016–17.

    Photography by SCS/Image courtesy of Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge.

  • Chambers also shows his three-part series State of the Nation. With its allusions to Uccello’s triptych The Battle of San Romano, the series is about a response to the calling of the Brexit referendum. “We partook in a game of high stakes poker and opted to stick on a hand as weak as could be found. As a result I lament,” he admits. “Mine was one of the first generations who grew up with multiculturalism as a norm.” In this series a solitary rider, first unsteady on horseback, then unseated from his mount, and finally crashing to the ground, his empty bag thrown clear, illustrates Brexit’s three stages to date: the announcement of the referendum in 2015, the 2016 campaign, and the 2017 fall-out. The last painting was finished at 1am on 2 March, days before the artwork began its journey to Venice.

  • David Hockney RA at the Academy in 2016, during his show ‘82 Portraits and 1 Still Life’, which travels to palazzo Ca’ Pesaro

    David Hockney RA at the Academy in 2016, during his show ‘82 Portraits and 1 Still Life’, which travels to palazzo Ca’ Pesaro

    © David Hockney/Photo: David Parry.

  • David Hockney

    Across the Grand Canal from the palazzo Ca’ Dandolo, the exquisite palazzo Ca’ Pesaro stages a new iteration of the Academy’s 2016 exhibition David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life. Edith Devaney, the Academy show’s curator, is hanging the works in the same configuration as they were seen in the RA, maintaining the chronology of their execution from July 2013 to March 2016.

    “The hang is important because the order is important,” Devaney explains. “It wasn’t just portraying different characters, it was also about David coming back to portraiture over a period of time.” Visitors to the 2016 show will remember the vivid palette Hockney employed, and in Venice, as the show unfolds in chapters, from space to space, the works are brilliantly and naturally illuminated. “It’s a beautiful upper-floor gallery overlooking the Grand Canal and the quality of light is wonderful.”

    Despite his great love for Venice and his many visits to the city, Hockney has not exhibited at the Biennale before. That both Chambers and Hockney are each showing a single body of work comprising scores of portraits is, says Devaney, a happy accident, but it is doubly so since Christine Macel, the 57th Biennale’s Director who has chosen the theme “Viva Arte Viva”, is championing humanism; the artistic act, says Biennale president Paolo Baratta, is at once an act of resistance, liberation and generosity.

  • Yinka Shonibare RA with 'The British Library', 2014

    Yinka Shonibare RA with 'The British Library', 2014

    Showing at the new Diaspora Pavilion in Venice

    © Yinka Shonibare MBE/All rights reserved, DACS 2017

  • Yinka Shonibare

    Taking up that theme further is the Diaspora Pavilion, new this year, a joint project by the University of the Arts, London, and the International Curators Forum. At the palazzo Pisani a Santa Marina, the work of 12 emerging artists is shown alongside that of their mentors, such as Yinka Shonibare RA, whose mentee is the figurative painter Kimathi Donkor. Having visited the Biennale for the first time in 2015, Donkor now finds himself exhibiting there, after a rigorous selection process. “I didn’t expect that my paintings would be on show next time I went!” Donkor explains. “And Yinka is an artist who I have admired for a long time.”

    Shonibare’s own work on show, The British Library, with its subject of migration, also fits the Biennale curatorial theme. Six thousand joyously coloured volumes bound in batik cloth are stacked on shelves that could line the walls of a country house reading room. The books carry the names of well-known figures whose families have moved to Britain: Oswald Mosley, Helen Mirren, Nigel Farage, the Queen.

    “We want to live in a tolerant society, but there’s still a problem there,” explains Shonibare. “So the Diaspora Pavilion is a great opportunity for these emerging artists.” The mentoring project bodes well for future British representation at the Biennale in an uncertain Brexit world. In the words of Emma Dexter, chair of the British Council committee that selected Barlow, “Cultural connections between the UK and other European nations are more important than ever.”

    British artists will certainly never want for inspiration in Venice, whatever the future holds. “Venice is the city where imagination is built of bricks and stone,” says Chambers. “Once visited it becomes the reference point of all imagined cities. Water, labyrinths, intimacy, grandeur, tight, vistas. The king of all cities.”

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