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Reasons to be cheerful, part 1

London: major exhibitions 2021

As the new year rolled into view, appleandhat was ready to start jumping up and down about exhibitions on the horizon. In 2021, trapped at home in the back half of winter, words about future events have appeared much like small icebergs in an unnervingly still cultural sea: packaged promises of potential sensory moments that might collide into our lives, or simply pass us by.

But with Spring well and truly here, lockdown measures lifting and spaces starting to confirm their reopening dates and programmes, it’s time to think about negotiating life and art out there, beyond the screen. Here are five future delights to pencil in from London’s museums and major spaces. The dates provided are correct at time of writing, but please check (click names of spaces for web links) before visiting.

April 12 – May 24

Hard Hats, 2021 © and courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London

As soon as next month it will be possible to wander at will around many of the art spaces we’ve missed so much. The Garden Museum is kicking off its art year with new site-specific paintings and works on paper by Shara Hughes. The American artist is known for her radical palette and sumptuous, emotionally charged rendering of the landscape. Hughes’ canvases sing with the heat and intensity of the Fauvists’ studies of the natural world, but her compositions speak of places more redolent of dream states or imaginary places than earthly sites. The artist’s past depictions of a souped-up and jangly Arcadia have often appeared stocked with fantastical growths; observed at distance and from a close-to histological perspective, as if through the eye of a new-world explorer. This project will centre around four large-scale paintings of flora designed to hang together in the nave of this former church, and that might be read in the manner of self-portraiture.

Michael Armitage: Paradise Edict

May 22 – September 19

Leopard Print Seducer, 2016. Cross/Steele Family Collection © Michael Armitage & White Cube (Ben Westoby)

For obvious reasons there’s been a lot of movement in the programmes of major spaces, but beyond the business of the blockbuster juggle can be found news of some real exhibition gems. Like this one, from RA Schools’ alumni Michael Armitage, organised in collaboration with Haus der Kunst, Munich. In the 10 years since graduating the British-Kenyan artist has been incredibly busy and in demand – in both of his home cities: London and Nairobi – and still found time to make the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute a reality. His paintings, created on lubugo, a Ugandan bark cloth, are always formally glorious to behold and saturated with the visual flavours, local narratives and politics of two very different continents. Armitage often highlights the exotic, self-serving lenses through which otherness is viewed. The title of this survey, ‘Paradise Edict’, positions us within the complex cultural terms and conditions of (and surrounding) such a place, whether a real or ideological destination. Alongside his exhibition of 15 large-scale paintings from the past six years, the artist has included a substantial number of works by leading contemporary East African artists.

July 15 – October 17

Six Spaces with Four Small Crosses, 1932 © Kunstmuseum Bern. Gift of Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach

Post #metoo, exhibitions about significant female artists whose lights were lost in the lives and antics of art-historical men have arrived like buses. Here’s another welcome one about the vital legacy of pioneering abstract artist and Swiss national Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943). Her work may have long been overshadowed by the career of her husband, Hans, but there is nothing of the periphery about Taeuber-Arp’s output, and she remains the only woman to feature on a Swiss bank note. From her years as an active Dadaist in Zurich, she went on to join the non-figurative art scene in Paris, where she developed some of her most significant abstract paintings and reliefs. Having returned to Switzerland during WWII, Taeuber-Arp sadly died of accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning in the house of Max Bill, aged just 53. This, the first UK retrospective of her multidisciplinary practice, includes art, design and textile works from major collections in Europe and the US.

Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy

Coming soon, dates TBC

Erotic Landscape, 1942, private collection. © The Estate of Eileen Agar. Photo: Pallant House Gallery © Doug Atfield

There’s a 1937 photograph of the late Eileen Agar by Lee Miller: a portrait of her shadow-self projected onto some delectable stone masonry and captured as if the sexy essence of Peter Pan about to cause some mischief in a pointy hat. Looking at her legacy, characterised by a bold, curious and contradictorily elegant DIY aesthetic, it appears entirely fitting. An artist associated with the British Surrealists – Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, et al – Agar understood the term to mean ‘the element of surprise in whatever you do’. Likely this major retrospective of paintings, collages, objects and photographs from the 1920s to the 1990s will explore her fearless performative commitment to making as a life-long adventure, but also the essential impressions she left on the worlds of art and fashion. The British Library has a wonderful audio ‘Life Story’ on Agar in its sound archives, and there's a new monograph available from Eiderdown Books.

Christina Quarles: In Likeness

Coming soon, dates TBC

Carefully Taut, 2019. Courtesy the artist & Pilar Corrias, London. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

Christina Quarles’ bodily, but always abstractly imagined compositions can make her characters appear as if already of the art encounter before they found themselves here, on canvas. Caught locking limbs in performative poses reminiscent of the life, theatre and dance studio, the sculptural quality of this evocative and ambiguous cast brings to mind the experimental material shorthand of Bourgeois and Hesse, as much as the visceral handwriting of key painters like Gorky and Hockney. ‘In Likeness’ was organised by and first shown at the Hepworth Wakefield. In the London incarnation, we may be lushly informed of physical, actual encounters – of every emotional shade and configuration – but Quarles also appears to reference our contemporary understanding of the body as experienced via, and shaped by, remote processes. While some areas of painted details are seductive for purely analogue, experiential reasons, the seemingly effortless visual segue between action and environment, at times, evokes a sense of workings on slippery, digital surfaces and the immediacy of finger-on-screen manufacture.

Coming soon: Reasons to be cheerful, part 2. Nation-wide: museums and major spaces


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