Events, exhibitions, releases February 2010

A number of new exhibitions and releases for 2010 demonstrate the continuing influence of William Blake in a variety of arts and formats.

One of the biggest events for the new year is the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain, but Blake is also present in the work of a number of other artists whose work has recently gone on display.

The Spanish conceptualist sculptor, Jaume Plensa, who in 1996 created Blake in Gateshead, a laser installation for the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, recently unveiled a new collection at the Nasher Sculpture Center. One piece, Twenty-nine Palms, is a curtain of stainless steel letters that spell out passages from some of Plensa’s favourite poets, including Blake as well as Charles Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson. The exhibition, Jaume Plensa: Genus and Species, runs until May 2.

At the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a retrospective of the work of Paul Nash shows how the landscapes created by the artist betweeen 1911 and 1946 were influenced by Blake as well as Samuel Palmer, Nash seeking to forge his own idiosyncratic symbolic language in the style of the Romantic artist. Paul Nash: The Elements is open between February 10 and May 9. It is also possible to see some of Blake’s own work at the Picture of Us? Identity in British Art exhibition that is currently on at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield.

Beyond the visual arts, Blake has had a role to play in a number of new musical releases. The country singer John Goodspeed’s new album, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), compares Blake to Muddy Waters, while the third album by Midlake, The Courage of Others, cites Blake as a poetic influence. That influence is more than passing for the Danish group The William Blakes, who have released two albums and are becoming increasingly popular in Scandinavia where they are currently on tour.

One extremely significant event is Jez Butterworth’s new play, Jerusalem, currently showing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London after its transfer from the Royal Court. Jerusalem deals with often-neglected, alternative forms of Englishness, and stars Mark Rylance as a drug-addled gipsy, Rooster Byron. Throughout the play, Blake is an important lodestone for the forgotten aspects of this often cynical green and pleasant land, and runs until April 24.

Perhaps the strangest influence of all, however, is the appearance of some of Blake’s visual ideas in the new game from Electronic Arts, Dante’s Inferno. Aiming to take gamers to Dante’s view of hell, a book of the game indicates clearly that Blake, along with Auguste Rodin and Gustave Doré, was one of the inspirations for the game design.

New Ofili show at Tate Britain

The Chris Ofili retrospective at Tate Britain opened on January 27 and runs at Tate until 16 May, 2010.

Ofili, an artist who has been influenced by Blake since the 1980s, has brought together more than 45 paintings as well as drawings and watercolours for the exhibition.

As well as an opportunity to see many of his most famous works, such as No Woman, No Cry (1998), Ofili’s response to the Stephen Lawrence case, and the remarkable Upper Room collection, the new show includes some of his latest paintings that demonstrate the effect of his new surroundings in Trinidad and Tobago.

Many art critics have noted the continuing importance of Blake as one of several influences on Ofili. Tom Lubbock saw the show as one of the strangest examples of Blake’s enduring appeal, while Charlotte Higgins noted the strong connections between Blake’s works and Ofili’s new images of a character he calls “The Healer”. 

The Chris Ofili exhibition runs from 27 January to 16 May, 2010. Entry: £10, concessions £8.50. More details at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/chrisofili/default.shtm.

Related links: Review of Chris Ofili and Richard Wright.

Chris Ofili and Richard Wright

Two recent exhibitions at Tate Britain have demonstrated the continuing importance of Blake as an influence on contemporary art. The Chris Ofili retrospective opened on January 27 and runs until May 16, 2010, while the winner of the 2009 Turner Prize, Richard Wright, attracted a great deal of admiration with his impressive contribution, a beautiful gold-leaf fresco.

Ofili, also a Turner Prize winner in 1998, has long been interested in Blake, most clearly in two paintings from 1995, Satan (inspired by Blake’s Satan in his Original Glory, c.1805) and Seven Bitches Tossing their Pussies before the Divine Dung (after Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne). Neither of these works are present in the current exhibition, which brings together more than 45 paintings as well as pencil drawings and watercolours, but, as a number of critics have noted, Blake’s influence continues to play a role in the development of Ofili’s art.

The most obvious example of this is a print, Siesta of the Soul, produced by Ofili as a limited edition for Tate Britain. With branching tendrils and vines surrounding elegant, handwritten text, this particular work is especially evocative of a page from one of Blake’s illuminated books, comprising a song of innocence or of experience that ends with the lines “shaded but not shrouded, summoning his dancing demons”. As a marriage of image and text, heavenly but with a hint of Blake’s playful diabolism, Ofili’s print is also reminiscent of the Romantic artist in terms of the spray-painted colours that remind me of the colour washes in Blake’s illuminated prophecies. Tom Lubbock has spoken of the works in this retrospective as “an art of luminous colour… of wild imagination”, and this is certainly true of the best of Ofili’s paintings.

To concentrate on Blake is, of course, to do a disservice to Ofili. His new surroundings in Trinidad and Tobago (the artist left London in 2005) inspire the latest paintings with a rich and luscious beauty, but Charlotte Higgins is certainly correct to see something of Blake in another of his recent works, The Healer, in which an uncanny figure devours vivid, yellow blooms. Personally, the highlight of the show for me was an opportunity to see The Upper Room, a recreation of his deservedly famous exhibition which ran at Tate throughout 2006, thirteen rhesus macaque monkeys depicted in gloriously competing colours.

Richard Wright has been creating site-specific art works for many years, often intricate paintings that are then erased. Sometimes those installations are discreet and delicate, such as the alcove shown as part of an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in 2008, but his major untitled piece for the 2009 Turner Prize was spectacular, an exquisite gold-leaf fresco that dominated the room in which it was displayed at Tate Britain.

The painstaking methods used by Wright to transfer the fresco to the wall, as well as the subtlety of effects achieved, has won him acclaim from usually sceptical commentators who regard the Turner Prize as little more than a freak show. Similarly, the transience of the work, now whitewashed over (so that, ironically, it remains as an archeological layer somewhere beneath the current Ofili exhibits), draws attention to what Wright has identified as the fragility of experience in his paintings.

Wright has frequently mentioned his admiration for Blake, telling interviewers that he often travelled down from his home in Glasgow to see the Blakes and Turners housed at Tate Britain, an experience that often left him both exhausted and elated. The influence of Blake, as well as Turner’s voluminous light and colour, is evident in the fresco (which, even though it no longer exists, I cannot help but think of in the present tense). The initial experience is overwhelming, a balanced chaos, but the painting it brought to mind most for me was Blake’s 1808 A Vision of the Last Judgement, that imposing mandala of the end of days in which damned and saved fall and rise around a central pillar of heavenly and infernal judgement, eternally circulating between paradise and earth. Wright’s work brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime.

The Chris Ofili exhibition runs from 27 January to 16 May, 2010. Entry: £10, concessions £8.50. More details at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/chrisofili/default.shtm.