Critics’ Picks

  • Helene Schjerfbeck, Girl from Eydtkuhne II, 1927, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 21 1/2".

    Helene Schjerfbeck

    Royal Academy | Burlington Gardens
    6 Burlington Gardens
    July 20–October 27, 2019

    The transformation of Helene Schjerfbeck from an accomplished if unremarkable salon painter at the end of the nineteenth century to a radical modernist from the 1900s onward is so abrupt that it could give one mental whiplash. My Mother, 1902, made when the artist was forty, is the earliest among her twentieth-century pieces in this survey (which includes a selection of her nineteenth-century works) and already speaks the abstract language she would develop over the next four decades: flattening of space, reduction of detail, and use of clothing to introduce a large patch of dominant color. All was in place.

    Working in the small Finnish town of Hyvinkää since 1902, far from the avant-garde strongholds, Schjerfbeck nevertheless possessed an unmistakably modern sensibility, which she likely gleaned during her European travels. Like Manet or Warhol, she was an observer of the present, often taking fashion magazines as her source material. Girl from Eydtkuhne II, 1927, perfectly encapsulates her blend of painterly abstraction and contemporary design. The model’s garment is a grid of broad pastel brushstrokes, and her elongated face is reduced to its essentials. Her body dissolves into the background. The work is at once a sharp disquisition on what it means to represent a person and an irresistibly stylish comment on fashion.

    Schjerfbeck’s mature works often chime more with art made closer to her death, in 1946, than with the heroic modernism that prevailed among her peers. Her forceful inquiry into the modern human subject and acute treatment of surfaces—the repeated applying and rubbing off, the scraping and sandpapering of paint—prefigures works by Giacometti, Dubuffet, and Wols, and yet Schjerfbeck employed these methods to create pictures of striking quietude, a temperament mostly alien to these successors. This distinctness allows her canvases to appear markedly contemporary today.

  • Jasmine Thomas-Girvan Medicine for All Things (detail), 2016, wood, bronze, glass, silver and recycled wheels
    30 x 20″.

    Chris Ofili and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan

    David Zwirner | London
    24 Grafton Street
    August 30–September 21, 2019

    A twenty-year artistic conversation between Trinidad-based artists and friends Chris Ofili and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan unfolds sparely but elegantly in “Affinities,” an exhibition of recent works that highlight each artist’s recent takes on folklore, rituals, and the prolific Caribbean landscape. Ofili’s latest oil and gold leaf paintings are kaleidoscopic and grand as ever. For Kiss (Odysseus & Calypso), 2019, Ofili puts the Greek king—rendered with dark skin and coiled hair—in a bed of water, entwined with his lover Calypso, here a mermaid boasting teal, orange, and purple scales (she’s described throughout Homer’s epic as “lustrous Calypso” and “the nymph with lovely braids”). Throughout the room hang ten smaller watercolor-and-pastels from the series “Vessels,” 2019, where the lovers reappear many-hued and in winding formations, oblivious to everything but each other.

    The second floor of the show is given over to Thomas-Girvan, a lesser-known Jamaican-born artist whose early experience as a jeweler and avid collector of small objects lost and found inform her finely wrought assemblages and installations. In one sculpture, Medicine for All Things, 2016, a figure poses in profile arms akimbo, sporting a glinting beak and an inky, ectopic human heart. Slim arms pin the hips of a golden torso, under which ravens circle inside a silver crinoline. More striking is the skeletal ark of metal that sits undisturbed atop the subject’s beret, where an abundance of gray palm fronds poke out of miniature corked glasses to form an eerie botanical garden. Who knows what else might grow?

  • Jo Spence in collaboration with Terry Dennett, The Picture of Health: Property of Jo Spence?, 1982, gelatin silver print on paper, 16 x 12''.

    Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery

    Wellcome Collection
    183 Euston Road
    May 30, 2019–January 26, 2020

    Jo Spence’s iconic photographs of her body between her first cancer diagnosis in 1982 and her death ten years later appeal so keenly to a posthumous memorialization of her oeuvre that it becomes easy to overlook the community organizing and activism to which she devoted the majority of her working life. Still, the artist’s collages, scrapbooks, self-portraits, and interviews included in “Misbehaving Bodies” splay open with raw clarity her confrontations with patriarchal and classist value systems and the ways in which they govern lives and their representation. Spence made photography into a tool with which to take control of her own image and to determine how the narrative of her life was, and is, witnessed by others.

    In what is perhaps a meta-rejoinder to overdetermined, thanatotic readings of Spence’s work, Oreet Ashery’s twelve-part web series Revisiting Genesis (2016) offers a macabre reflection on the contemporary death industry. Real people preparing for death are interviewed alongside fictional characters, contemplating the creeping corporatization of their afterlives. Repackaging online archives and dispatching videos to loved ones decades into the future are just two services offered to the dying. The final episode features a song written by Ashery, inspired by the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead. A voice sings forlornly: “We are homeless, / Children of the government / And how we live is how we die / Only more so.”

    Not only do the privileges that one has or does not have in life determine the conditions of one’s health care and one’s death, they also—in Ashery’s dramatization at least—define the posthumous representations on offer. Elsewhere in this exhibition, Spence’s photographs chronicle the alternative therapies she opted for after her lumpectomy. Despite being filtered through the kind of institutional lens she critiqued—not least to be exhibited in the Wellcome Collection, with its focus on the Western medical establishment she eventually shunned—Spence’s work upholds the possibility of self-determination and defiance, in life and at its end.