Naum Gabo at Tate St Ives 2020

Naum Gabo at Tate St Ives 2020

The Naum Gabo exhibit at Tate St Ives started in March this year and has been extended to run until this September. I went along in early March and here are my takeaway impressions and some photos of what you might expect if you have a chance to visit.

We are so lucky in Cornwall not just to have an amazing local wealth of creative and artistic talent locally, and an immense history of modern art in the area, but also to have facilities like Tate St Ives to visit ‘on a rainy day’, to stretch the mind, educate and inform us without even leaving the Duchy (County to you and me!).

When the Naum Gabo exhibition in St Ives started in early spring I went along with my (slightly short attention span and tantruming throughout the exhibit) son to take it in.

My visit was, as such, quite short and so will be the information in this blog as a result, but short turned out to be very sweet. I found this was an exhibition I could go to see, learn and enjoy immensely, because the work here is very fast to comprehend and enjoy. Even if you look at it in amazement for the sculptural skill, visual impact, mathematical precision and calculations, or, as I did, the complete surprise surrounding the manufacturing techniques available in the era, you can be impressed by the forethought and modernity of it that still makes it feel futuristic and timeless today.


His work combined geometric abstraction with a dynamic organization of form in small reliefs and constructions, monumental public sculpture and pioneering kinetic works that assimilated new materials such as nylon, wire, lucite and semi-transparent materials, glass and metal.

Two preoccupations, unique to Gabo, were his interest in representing negative space—”released from any closed volume” or mass—and time. He famously explored the former idea in his Linear Construction works (1942-1971)—used nylon filament to create voids or interior spaces as “concrete” as the elements of solid mass

Source: Tate/ Wikipedia

What I enjoyed about Naum Gabo: Constructions for Real Life.

The first extensive presentation of Naum Gabo’s sculptures, paintings, drawings and architectural designs to be held in the UK for over 30 years

Tate St Ives

I didn’t know that Naum Gabo had lived in Carbis Bay during WWII and been considered one of the St Ives Artists. This felt great to me as it drew a link for me between the location in which I now live. I have a pull towards the geometric visual style in my paintings, and the relationship of the three dimensionality in this sculptural work that resonates with the three dimensional direction I am currently taking in my own work. I could feel a connection with the sculptures and plans. I can feel the organic

I made a mental note to myself to look up: Hyperbolic parabaloid, tensegrity structure and history plastic manufacturing (although these days I’m researching more into plastics re-use)… and you might add to that Constructivism (and give that to your child to do as homework for the school holidays!).

I couldn’t believe how well some of the pieces have survived – the geometric acrylic sheet sculptures that have remained in immaculate condition are nearly 100 years old. You could be mistaken for thinking they were made in the 1970s, influenced by Star Wars or some other space odyssey, but in fact perhaps the reverse is true, perhaps films and architecture drew on the work of Naum Gabo as the innovator.

The precision of the hyperbolic paraboloids, the mathematical calculations that went into them and the precise execution of the pieces. The hyperbolic paraboloids make for beautiful sculptures which are perfectly hand tensioned, each string or wire having the same degree of tension.


For me this is a stunning exhibition, beautifully presented, amazingly well preserved and extremely educational and inspirational. If a 3 year old can lie on the floor having a tantrum because they don’t want to leave, that’s a good sign for taking older kids or the rest of your family along.

Inspirations from Tate Modern

Inspirations from the Tate Modern, November 2015

On my day out to see Ai Weiwei’s exhibition I took the opportunity to do some further research and to look for painting inspirations in the Tate Modern. Limiting myself to the free exhibits I was interested in narrowing it down to just the Energy and Process and Making Traces rooms. I was a bit disappointed in the painting selection, but there were a few key items that took me, and one completely unexpected body of work encompassing drawing, sculpture and performance by Rebecca Horn that was a real surprise.

First of all, the paintings.


Giorgio Griffa, Segni Orizzontali, Acrylic paint on canvas, 1975

This piece was of interest to me initially because the painting isn’t attached to a canvas stretcher, it’s simply painted straight onto canvas and pinned to the wall. There is a relationship between Griffa’s use of the canvas material as a raw object to how I apply gloss paint in the more process-led paintings where it wraps around the surface sides of the painting to amplify the three dimensionality of the painting’s surface.

Giorgio Griffa, Segni Orizzontali, 1975 at the Tate Modern, November 2015

Griffa is recording the process of painting which I feel is making a statement just about process. He uses a harmonious sequence of colours developing from one line to the next but after four lines of marks the brushstrokes taper off into nothing leaving the remainder of the canvas bare.
To me this is initially interesting but it feels incomplete, as though he’s given up on the painting and lost interest once he’s proved his point.
There is always a question raised when you do a painting of when to stop and how to know it’s finished. Perhaps he’d planned to stop at the moment he felt the point was made and that would be the end of the painting. Perhaps a second half of making that half finished painting into a statement about art is in the practice of folding the canvas up when in storage to retain the creases that will be prominent in its next display.
My initial interest was fulfilled quickly but I didn’t want to stand and stare at it or to come back for another look, the idea was quickly digested and I moved on in search of more.

Cy Twombly Untitled (Bacchus), 2008


I was particularly looking forward to re-acquainting myself with the work of Cy Twombly; massive, expressive canvasses with giant gestural marks of free flowing paint. Immersively large scale and full of impact.

I’ve always enjoyed doing large canvases, they are expensive to make and quite a big gamble to undertake given the cost involved to do one but when I do it pays off, the bigger paintings always lend themselves to space and freedom well for me and I feel able to stretch out and explore the space. I never like to waste resources or money so I know if I don’t get it right I won’t be a happy bunny.


Cy must have either been a wealthy man or he had big confidence that these would work, which is lucky as we can happily assume they have worked given they were made late on in his career. These three giant ‘blood splatterings’ of paintings are on display in their own room. They were painted using a brush attached to a long stick to achieve the huge swooping lines almost resembling handwriting.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bacchus), 2008 at the Tate Modern, November 2015
Detail from up close of Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bacchus), 2008 at the Tate Modern, November 2015

Cy said that he did paintings when he had an idea for them and so they came naturally. He let the painting idea and needs dictate the size of the canvas, which is also a concept I agree with. Some paintings can’t be contained into a limited space, it doesn’t work and the composition and scale don’t work – and why work at a small scale when really you intended to paint at a large scale as that was the essence of the painting?


Another practice of Twombly’s I agree with is that he paints three or four paintings at the same time as a group which is another natural thing about painting. If I am to do one painting I inevitably have three or four other variations of the same piece in my head at the same time and they don’t all belong in one painting. Each need to be expressed while the thought for it is there as they are separate entities and variations on the same theme. An example of this is in Abstract paintings numbered 1,2,3 and 4 (the first four paintings in my portfolio on my website). These were all painted at the same time, they are similar but they express different paces, compositions and colour balances and they enable me to be able to document the full range of the painting. The four paintings together in a way are of one painting, or one thought for a painting, yet they are separate and individual pieces where one thought leads to another and then another after that. It’s like a contained sequence of thought similar to the artist’s whole body of work where in order to do a painting, another painting before that has informed it and then that painting leads on to more. A creative gateway has opened within a painting that generates broader thought and a proliferation of variations.
I’ve seen graphic designers work in this way too, they have an idea but there are various ways of executing it, then they can drill down on the one that works the best and progress that idea forwards to create one final piece, yet any of those ideas could have been a feasible outcome. And it’s similar in creating a body of work with painting, it’s possible to create endless outcomes in abstract painting but a direction will work the best and that’s what needs to be continued.


I feel there is a relationship between my working practices and those of Cy Twombly, from a purely abstract painting perspective, I like scale and multiples of paintings, I love his large scale gestures and I love the intuitive and un-forced approach to letting a painting happen and creating the painting that there is an idea sitting there for.

Tomma Abts, Zebe, 2010


I next spotted a small painting by Tomma Abts, Zebe (2010). My contemporaries in Two Queens had recommended that I take a look at her work due to my current predisposition to using geometrics and tight control in my latest work (currently in progress and no spoiler alerts here!).


Tomma Abts, Zebe (2010) on show at the Tate Modern, November 2015

This was a very small painting with an undercoat of acrylic painted over in oils, neatly and flatly painted only 48 x 38cm. A slight contrast to the paintings by Twombly!


Abts doesn’t need the 3-4 metre space to execute this neat and controlled painting and she methodically applies the paint out of which the forms and shapes emerge, readjusting until the composition is arrived at. So here she seems to use a combination of method and intuition then makes a decision at the point at which she thinks the painting has evolved to a stage that it’s done.


Here there also is an element, as there has been in my work, of the painting helping to determine itself. It seems to me that this is a process by which she works with the painting, again with a degree of intuition and some control over it. As I find, there is a point at which the painting can’t be controlled (despite a controlled style of painting) because that would incur precise planning and knowledge of the exact outcome (which would be detrimental to learning from the painting) and at this point does it then become a design? The end result of this painting due to the flatness of the paint does seem to look something of a design to me.

Making Traces exhibit


Mark Rothko (late 1950s)


I had run out of time when I reached the Rothko room, and only had time for a very quick photo and glimpse which was disappointing. I wanted to have time to sit and think about the work but we were being ushered out.

Mark Rothko paintings as part of the Making Traces exhibit at the Tate Modern, November 2015

There were nine paintings in this room, very very dimly lit and hung against a mid tone grey wall. All of them were deep red with varying compositions. The paintings had originally been commissioned for a restaurant and I felt that explained the lighting as they would have been seen at this light level. Which is an interesting layer to add to the thought behind the paintings.


I felt as they were intended, claustrophobic, closed in and almost as though I were in a soundproof room, but visually soundproof. The light, painting colour and scale made everything feel muted and almost depressing due to the weight of the red, grey walls and the shapes within the paintings. A very heavy experience.


The board outside quoted Rothko to say of Michaelangelo, his influencer that he ‘achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall’. I couldn’t agree more and it wasn’t what I had expected to see.

Rebecca Horn


I mentioned earlier the surprise of the work by Rebecca Horn, an artist I was really not familiar with and whose work was not particularly directly related to mine, I didn’t think, also the work was quite a mix of video, performance, sculpture and drawing, so not an obvious choice but I did think it was rather exciting and interesting, probably because it freaked me out rather a lot.


Some of this was from the 1970s and other pieces were more recent work from 2005. It was the more recent body sized drawing-paintings that were the initial interest. Without reading the plaque the body sized marks and (almost bloody) fingerprints give an impression of the body and connect the marks on the canvas in a strong visual way. It’s incredibly clear to see and to feel the way in which the artist has applied the mediums to the paper, almost as clearly as though she had done it there and then in front of you. The marks left behind are raw and very exposed and I’ve not felt something communicate the action of the user in such an explicit way before. There seemed to be no barrier at all between the application and the viewing of the piece, which to me is really quite a freaky experience to feel given the theme of the work being meditation and energy, I really felt it myself and now I am starting to wonder if that’s got something to do with my own meditative experiences.

Rebecca Horn, House of Pain, 2005, on show at Tate Modern November 2015
Rebecca Horn, House of Pain, 2005, on show at Tate Modern November 2015

This is what the plaque says about House of Pain and Waiting for Absence, both 2005 (having read this after seeing the pieces):

‘to look inside bodies and meditate one’s own way into them… you approach a hidden centre, maybe the solar plexus, and follow the circular motion or energy threads of breathing’.

Rebecca Horn, Waiting for Absence, 2005, on show at Tate Modern November 2015

There were some other items in the exhibit that were quite scary and intimate. A video of Rebecca in the 70s making a drawing wearing a cage of pencils on her face, a Cockatoo headpiece that had ‘wings’ to envelope/embrace a partner into a kiss (this was really voyeuristic and a bit shocking) and then also, the piece that to me was the most raw and shocking item, a sculpture called Overflowing Blood Machine, 1970. This was bloody and to me, almost torturous looking, perhaps this was what gave such an impact of all the items that perhaps the mechanics had been inspired by medieval creations and inventions.

Overflowing Blood Machine was a plinth with transparent tubes that encased a wearer. I thought this looked less like a therapeutic hospital device than one of dystopia and torture or perhaps even unnatural genetic engineering or some other sinister device. The wearer (a performance artist) is ‘tied down on top of a glass container, tubes are wrapped around his body. Blood is slowly pumped from the glass container through the plastic tubes. This garment of veins encases his body, wrapping him in a pulsating skin.’ I think this is the stuff of horror movies, see what you think from the photos!

I’m now looking forward to my next gallery visit, but first some more painting of my own!


This blog post was first published by myself 23rd Nov 2015 at

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts, London 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts, London 2015

I picked up my camera and headed off to the Big Smoke for a day of treating myself to art gallery mooching.


I didn’t know an awful lot about Ai Weiwei before I spotted his exhibition was on at the Royal Academy of Arts, but I did know that it would be good with well executed work that would make me think harder and deeper not only about the work, but about its context.

He's the Beijing Andy Warhol... he wants to shock you

Never Sorry

Never go unprepared


Not wanting to go unprepared I did some homework in advance. My method of research is to ‘just Google it’ and put out a bit of lead-up content reporting my findings. So I started by finding the trailer for a video from Ai Weiwei entitled Never Sorry outlining Ai as “he’s the Beijing Andy Warhol…he wants to shock you…I love the culture but I want something new”. Not bad as a one-liner, in fact it could sum up Ai Weiwei within the 140 character limit. Which is handy, given that Ai Weiwei utilises the platform which is banned in China to expand his message globally.


So I continued my research. Having posted my excitement on Twitter, The Royal Academy responded by helping me along with a link to their bite-sized videos. I would recommend these to anyone about to visit the exhibition, there is an audio guide to support the tour but taking the time to understand the context first will help a lot, especially if you plan to visit as I did, carrying a bag, a camera, phone and the audio guide, the RA was very busy and taking the time to listen, look, photograph and think means you need to allow a few hours with the information provided, let alone really think about it as you look at it.


What my research revealed knocked me back and I can only say I was truly shocked. I watched this TED film with Ai talking about his work and restrictions. There were things in the back of my mind that I already knew but had never known the true impact of such as there being reported an earthquake in the Sichuan Province in 2008 which had killed thousands of people and that schools had fallen flat to the ground as a result. I knew that there were countless untold human rights abuses in China, that Tibet should be freed, that China has one of the world’s worst records for protecting its people. I recall watching a programme that reported prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, thousands of people were being displaced from their homes (read that as ‘being made homeless’) to make way for the shiny new stadium (you can read more about Beijing jailing and torturing protestors against this and Olympic city ‘cleansing’). Incidentally, now that the public land has been sold off for commercial gain, the Beijing Olympic stadium is now proving to be something of a White Elephant.


All this provides the vital context to Ai Weiwei’s work and, if you have a bit of time (and perhaps enough data) you should watch this documentary by the BBC Without Fear or Favour next because this is what will make you pay attention to the work, not just within the context of what’s on show in the exhibition, but because there is a much deeper level of understanding to be had of why Ai is so extreme in his approach and commitment to a life of making globally important art – so much so that I believe he is saying he would die for it; because art defines who he is and freedom of speech enables him to carry out his art.

The show opens with the first big piece, Bed, 2004 which is a piece recycled from Qing Dynasty timber, like much of Ai’s work, reclaimed salvage.

More photos of Bed

Headphones on


The show opens with the first big piece, Bed, 2004 which is a piece recycled from Qing Dynasty timber, like much of Ai’s work, reclaimed salvage. It is a map of China’s borders (I read this as restrictions and boundaries) rolled out flat that sits luxuriously on the floor creating a landscape of ripples that are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The quality of the timber is rich and satisfying, a beautiful object in itself, a very attractive sculpture.

Detail from Kippe, 2006, on show at the RA, November 2015

More photos of Kippe


A couple of bigger reclaimed pieces follow, Table and pillar, 2002 and Kippe, 2006 the former considered important due to the technical challenges and insight into the country’s past. The next few pieces are quite simple and illustrative of Ai Weiwei’s approach to making art. My impression was that the majority of these served the same purpose; to demonstrate Ai’s desire to destroy the sentiment of the past by using iconic and deeply valued objects and to show their perceived value as intangible. By turning functional pieces such as valuable stools and tables into unusable objects, this would render them practically pointless, however by utilising the methods of traditional craftmanship (the assigned factor that gives them their worth) to alter the objects, Ai manages to highlight the unnecessary value that they hold. Perhaps you could ask a question here that if the model for these items means them then becoming art will it add further value to the item’s antiquity for the future due to the application of the work of the artist to the object.

In these pieces Ai Weiwei’s interest in Dadaism and influence by the work of Marcel Duchamp is easily recognised, that of items grounded in the everyday that are taken apart and put back together with meticulous refinement. It is really very clear to see and the reference to Western art history contextualises globally.

For me, the standout piece of this exhibition is linked to the shock of the background behind the piece Straight made between 2008 and 2012. My research defined the exhibition for me and this piece truly brings to life the reality of government oppression and human suffering. China has historically been a secretive nation, maintaining power through secrecy and control of information.

The deadly earthquake suffered in 2008 measured 8.0 on the Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS – formerly known as the Richter scale). The scale defines this as “Major damage to buildings, structures likely to be destroyed. Will cause moderate to heavy damage to sturdy or earthquake-resistant buildings. Damaging in large areas. Felt in extremely large regions”. Given this definition and the population density, all buildings in the area should have been constructed to be earthquake resistant, however 7 years later 69,195 people are currently known to be dead as a result, with 18,392 still missing. The point of this for Ai Weiwei was that of all the buildings that were destroyed, these schools were completely flattened. The earthquake hit at a time when children were in school yet school buildings shouldn’t have fallen and the Government wasn’t telling people who had disappeared and what the reason was, giving rise to a feeling that the Government hadn’t ensured the schools were properly constructed. Parents didn’t know if their children had perished in the earthquake.

Straight, 2008-2012 at the Royal Academy, November 2015

For Ai Weiwei he felt that he couldn’t understand the event and the devastation of it and the Government’s response without going to see it for himself and so he travelled to the area with a team and they started to collect names of those children who perished which were collated and read out by followers of his blog. The blog was later shut down by the Government for revealing “state secrets”. This resulted in Ai Weiwei being beaten by police and denied the ability to give evidence in support of one his assistants, he was then hospitalised for bleeding on the brain.

Later, Ai and the studio team volunteers were able to return and collate the names and details of those children and the printouts featuring the details are exhibited alongside Straight with accompanying photographs showing the catastrophic devastation caused by the earthquake. In  the photographs barely a building remains upright and search teams are seen recovering few bodies.


Straight itself is constructed from bars of rebar that Ai Weiwei anonymously collected from the clear up operation. The metal rods that were supposed to support and reinforce the concrete and protect the buildings from falling in many cases were very thin and inadequate. Straight is made up of around 90 tonnes of the 200 tonnes of rebar collected and straightened out as thought new by the team in which time Ai Weiwei was imprisoned and intimidated by the government for 81 days. This act of dedication to represent the individuals who died in the earthquake, and the effort to memorialise and remember them brings an emotional and human level into the work that isn’t seen in the previous items in the exhibition, and I think this brings the piece up a level that makes it connect more deeply with the audience.


There is also an element here that the bars are so well straightened you would never know that they were once bent from the earthquake, and it is like they in themselves are covering up the event, but straightened with a desire to put things back to how they were before, to treasure and remember the lives before the earthquake. This video shows the Making of Straight.

Moving on from Straight, we move into a room that talks about Ai’s struggles with the Government, his oppression as an artist and the Government’s attempts to constrain his work by bulldozing his studio. Ai had criticised the Beijing Olympics internationally, fought for those who suffered as a result of the earthquake and for over 300,000 children who had been harmed by infant formula. He utilised this as an event to commemorate the studio and hold a feast of river crabs. Of the items in this exhibit, He Xie, 2011 is a pile of 3,000 crabs clambering over one another, I think is the most interesting part. The translation for river crab ‘He Xie’ means harmonious, which is a concept of the Communist party’s slogan ‘The realisation of a harmonious society’ and this is taken to denote censorship within Chinese society. The feasting on river crabs, to which he was then, due to the Government, unable to attend becoming a piece of performance art and defiance by those attendees. The crabs shown were anatomically correct and made of hand painted porcelain, a mischievous edge I believe is shown in the escape of one of the crabs up the wall. I later felt like one of the clambering crabs on the tube in the midst of the madness.


More references to surveillance, challenging traditional values and oppression follow, the use of craftsmanship carefully executed in the work, Ai’s art business giving work to skilled individuals using high value materials, marble, tea, crystal, Han urns and the highly crafted Treasure Box, 2014. All traditional Chinese items.

The exhibition becomes renewed when we get to one of the last galleries featuring the S.A.C.R.E.D. 2012 diorama depicting torturous aspects from Ai’s incarceration such as interrogations and being watched using the loo. These could be viewed from the side, but if you were tall enough (I barely was and I am average height) you could peer in from the top by standing on a step and experience the pieces in an ‘out of body experience’ kind of a way as though you were either Ai witnessing his own life, or a video camera surveilling the situation. This room was decorated in a blingy, gold-coloured wallpaper of handcuffs and Twitter logos with Ai’s face as the bird. I feel it is demonstrating that he can overcome the authorities and this treatment by still getting his message out through Twitter. The image of this was quite sinister, Ai playing the Government at its own game and by putting his face on the wallpaper as the bird, he’s become the more powerful force. The fact that the paper is only printed gold and not actually made from gold shows that the luxury material itself is unnecessary, but also refers to mass production techniques and mass distribution through social media.

More photos of Bicycle Chandelier


Finally the mass production is addressed again through the giant Bicycle Chandelier, 2015 commissioned to be re-fashioned with crystals for the Royal Academy, made from Forever Bicycles historically ridden all over China but ridden less in recent times due to increasing modernisation while riding a bike in China has become a luxury and not a utility. This piece suits the elegance and luxury gold leaf of its position under the atrium roof, the commissioning of the piece by the RA feeling like an act of extravagance by the gallery itself, possibly funded by sales of merchandise in the gift shop as you exit. I wondered whether Ai Weiwei embraces corporate souvenir sales to help fund his mission (given that some of the books themselves are his work) and the partnerships with galleries seeing it as a necessary way to enable art, or whether the monetisation of art, art galleries and the link to consumerism is seen as an additional issue, perhaps one not to be addressed given the number of problems he is already tackling.

I’ve since read some art reviews on Ai’s exhibition in the press. Although to a great degree the critics are understanding the work, they credit Ai for his celebrity and politics but criticise the value of the work as art. I think they are missing the point. There is a marketing aspect to creating art of asking ‘who is your audience?’ swiftly followed by ‘what do you want your audience to feel, think and do as a result of seeing your work?’. For this element Ai is strong, he’s embraced marketing to deliver his work to the masses in addition to the gallery circuit and achieved this within the West’s commercial and capitalist structure. He’s managed to reach outside of China. Despite the content of the exhibition, The critics fail to contextualise that China has a very different culture and the Ai has worked outside of this, he’s embraced a broader global perspective and has overcome huge restrictions. He manages to speak to a broader population and not just the niche of the art world, a clique that many of the masses struggle to connect with.


As an artist you have to adapt to the fast changing environment in which you are working. Ai combines his work with current communication methods such as Instagram and Twitter in order to not only target his audience, but to create a lasting digital footprint about his work that can’t be restricted by the government and this work has influence within a contemporary, global context. In China Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google are all restricted, Ai cannot be searched for using Google as his output is censored. Freedom of speech is not allowed.


For this I see him as a better communicator, I agree with his stance on producing work that is clear and straightforward to understand, that’s not tied up in the impenetrable jargon of the art world, that art should be available to the broadest possible audience, that it shouldn’t take a degree, a masters and years of training to be able to decipher the language of the pieces.


Ai’s work is current and relevant to the global population, if the West are to continue to increase trade with China, Human Rights abuses need to be addressed by politicians, the voting public need to be aware of the issues and to influence from the bottom up. The Human Rights Act needs to be kept strong and not watered down so that the democratic principles to protect people help to ensure that trade is ethical and that consumers are not unwittingly buying in to harming those who work for Chinese companies.


I left the exhibition feeling it was a job well done. I took quite a few photos of the exhibition that I’ve posted to my Flickr Gallery in addition to those in this article. Please feel free to post your thoughts below.

I first published this blog on Thursday, 12 November 2015 at