Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath @ King’s College London

The Inigo Rooms at Somerset House are hosting an exhibition of recent work by one of Britain’s most established artists, Maggi Hambling CBE. (The Inigo Rooms are reached through a doorway in the East Wing of the main quad of Somerset House – itself accessed either via a grand archway from the Strand or via the river terrace, linked to Waterloo Bridge by a sloping ramp.)

Aftermath

You go down an atmospheric old winding staircase to the long, narrow, darkened corridor with five rooms off it, each sealed by a heavy wooden door – a slightly eerie Alice in Wonderland vibe – and immediately see some of the 30 or so Aftermath works, all about human head size, sitting on four-foot-high pedestals, spotlit in the darkness.

Hambling was born and raised in East Anglia and the sea is a big presence in her work – probably her most famous – and controversial – piece is the four-metre-high steel sculpture of a seashell, Scallop, unveiled at the north end of Aldeburgh beach in 2003.

Aftermath is the name she’s given to a series of relatively small sculptures, begun in 2013. She’s taken driftwood from the shore, carved and reformed the pieces, coated them in plaster to soften the outlines and create a dripping, molten look, then cast them in bronze and painted and repainted them with thick gloopy layers of paint.

What is art if not an act of attention – the creation of an object or sounds or series of words – which themselves command attention? Quite how much attention is entirely up to the strolling viewer. Walking down the corridor past ten or so of these strange, melted gargoyle shapes painted purple or blue-white or yellow and then into a room full of twenty or more – their sheer abundance liberates the viewer to window shop and alight on this or that object as whims of light, angles or curves, catch your fancy.

Because one hanging on the wall at the start is shaped like a pig’s head, and the next one is a bright yellow glutinous object with tubes protruding which could be a heart, I wondered if they were going to be visions from an abattoir, and that that would be the link with the overall war theme of the exhibition. But as I explored further I realised they are far more diverse than that in shape and colour and intention. I liked:

War Requiem II

The sign on the heavy wooden door advises that only one visitor at a time should enter the War Requiem II room, so I turned the handle and entered with trepidation. It is a small room made smaller by four inner walls of rough hardboard, on which are hanging about 20 abstract oil paintings all using the same thick swirls of Indian yellow and jet black oil paint to create tortured gashes, maybe – I thought – the fires burning up out of the oil deliberately released by Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War. In fact they have titles like Victim XXX and Battlefield XVIII, from which I realise they are intended to be much more figurative than first appeared.

From loudspeakers overhead comes the haunting, swooning sound of the soprano singing the Lacrymosa from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

There is an old wooden chair to sit on and two mirrors, all three objects lightly flecked with the same colours as the paintings. Maybe as we walk round the small space we are meant to catch our reflection in the mirrors and think these victims of atrocity could be us.

You are the sea

At the end of the Alice in Wonderland corridor is another heavy door with a minatory sign on it warning entrants to be prepared. Inside another small room is a two-metre-wide concrete drainage pipe, placed on its side to form a circular seat. The mouth of the pipe is covered with a metal grille and the whole thing is a recreation of a vent from one of the many drainage systems which cover Hambling’s native East Anglia. Apparently, this one is a replica of part of the sluice at Thorpeness, built to prevent the sea flooding the river Hundred and, more metaphorically, from rushing in to overwhelm the land.

There’s a loudspeaker in the pipe and from it comes a recording of the seasounds, the remote booming and breaking of waters far below, which you can hear in the real vent. And mixed into the swashing, crashing sounds are fragments of speech, phonemes torn from Hambling’s 2009 poem You Are The Sea. Dominating the wall is one of her very large Wall of water paintings – as so often she’s painted a large series on the same theme – thick garottes of oil paint depicting the unruly element which threatens to wash us away.

Figurative

Those were the highlights. In other rooms are more obviously representational works. A vivid charcoal copy of a detail of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian stands as their mascot, reopening the possibility of an immediately understandable figurative art. They include:

  • A large striking painting of a line of women in black burqas holding rocket launchers – Gulf women prepare for war – taken from a photograph, a snapshot of the absurdity and incongruity of a war which is still raging.
  • Cuddling skulls evocative depiction of a timeless theme for moralists.
  • In the 1990s Hambling created a series of bronze sculptures titled War coffin – consisting of small frames with fragments of metal dangling down – and the figurative room has a TV on a pedestal showing a video with the sound of the metal pieces knocking each other like wind chimes, an eerie tinkling which echoes down the darkened corridor.

IMHO

For me the requiem room didn’t really work, much though I liked the individual paintings: they felt too samey hung together, their similitude drained them of impact.

By contrast the walls of water paintings seemed to me to successfully vary a theme or subject and a style, ensuring visual consistency by the use of the same palette of whites and greys, but producing lots of new and fresh images. They were helped by the scale, as well: the victim paintings are all small and close to each other in the viewer’s field of vision, so have a similar affect, whereas the big walls of water had more space to express variety on the canvas, and you had to turn to address each one individually.

But in my opinion it is worth visiting just to see the Aftermath pieces, to wander among these strange combinations of accident and artifice, and let the shapes and colours and configurations sink in, striking chords in your mind, opening possibilities.

Related links

Advertisements
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: