There was a time when Hoxton was considered to be one of the most edgy art scenes of London – a bit like the still gritty, up and coming New Cross area of Lewisham now – but these days, a month rarely goes by without a gallery being supplanted by a pilates studio or a bar. The avant-garde days of Shoreditch, Dalston and Hackney are long gone. That’s partly why it’s still interesting to gallery-hop in the area and see what has enough staying power to have survived the ebbs and flows of the past 20 years.
Of course, the White Cube in Hoxton Square has been and remains a fixture of the contemporary art world and a pioneer amongst the major galleries that have established themselves away from the stately chill of Mayfair. It’s Hoxton square branch is quite crafty in presenting a diverse exhibition programme alternating between sacred monsters the likes of Anselm Kiefer with young and somewhat more challenging artists such as taxidermis Polly Morgan. At the moment, what you will find if you stop by before a drink at the George and Dragon or at the Electric Showroom is an intricate psychedelic vision the likes of which might make you forget you wanted a drink in the first place.
The Most Beautiful World in the World (until June 4th) by Friedrich Kunath is quite hard to qualify as it takes over the whole ground floor like a sprawling dreamscape. The mixture of painting, sculpture, music, video and even smells overtakes the senses in a very powerful way as soon as you enter the normally spare gallery space. One of the main facts to become manifest in this exhibition is that Kunath is not limited by disciplinary boundaries or definitions of art as he references pop songs, the art canon, bad telly and comics equally and with great abandon. This makes for a saturated environment that will either make you smile or send you running.
A giant banana playing the horn share the same space as a very realistic sculptural self-portrait of the artist and when you catch either of them from the corner of your eye, the dim lights give the impression that they just might have moved a little. The paintings, all pastel flowers and glimmering lines reveal nude writhing figures when you squint at them to try and see properly in the the dark velvet-lined room. If you’re a music lover, you could spend a good while guessing the origins of the references that Kunath has slipped into just about every title. “All the sleeves are grey and the ties are blue”? Think back on the lyrics of California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & The Papas and you’ll get it. Kunath’s migration from his native Germany to L.A. is a telling clue when it comes to finding his sources of influence.
If you can still handle more art after this sensory assault, I suggest you wander on down to Flowers East on Kingsland Road. This commercial gallery has kept a lower profile than the White Cube, never aiming for trendiness and favouring a mix of highly market savvy painting and photography with the odd ambitious sculptural work by the likes of Gavin Turk. This is perhaps not the East London gallery to go to in order to see the most ambitious work but it’s a very good place to discover very talented early to mid-career artists. The current exhibition on the ground floor is the magnificent and disquieting Immortality (until May 21st) by Scottish painter Ken Currie.
His large scale portraits of elderly men in military uniform combine the formality of traditional portraiture with the strangeness of Francis Bacon’s twisted figures. In Broken King, a man sits in a chair, adopting a classic pose but he is shirtless and the juxtaposition of his flabby ageing torso and his bemused expression convey more vulnerability then authority. Chimera is certainly the centre piece of this exhibition. The large group portrait is incredibly dynamic and full of tension with the main characters, a resplendent young woman in a red dress and a crippled old man, posing formally while the surrounding characters appear to have been captured almost photographically frozen mid-action. Currie is obviously fascinated by the human figure in all its glorious beauty and its repulsive flaws. His painting is incredibly precise and detailed in certain areas, often faces, and quite diffuse in others giving a ghostly cast to his subjects.
If you haven’t yet had you fill of art, a quick climb to the first floor will yield a wildly different approach to painting in the childish scribbles of Rachel Heller and a small collection of large scale razor sharp photographs by the unparalleled Jeff Wall. The best way to finish this art expedition in the East End is with one of the best things Kingsland Road has to offer: excellent Vietnamese food. Spring rolls and morning glory anyone?