It is a recognized fact that the fascination among artists for African artefacts at the beginning of the 20th century had a revolutionary influence on Cubism: most of the artists associated with the movement were indeed among the first in Europe to start collecting ritualistic masks and other miscellaneous items from the African continent. Artists like Picasso, Braque and many others, saw beauty in objects that originally had no aesthetic purpose, and it clearly filtered into their work.
The Barbican exhibition highlights the idea that contemporary artists still receive creative stimulus from personal collections of artefacts – collections that, in some cases, border on obsession. The selection of artists whose collections are on display ranges from Pop Art king Andy Warhol to Minimalist pioneer Sol LeWitt, with the largest space given over to Damien Hirst. The exhibition also includes some lesser well-known art world figures – like Mexican artist and tattooist Dr Lakra. Adding another layer to the show is Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings, which are read as both collection and artwork in their own right.
The exhibition essentially presents two types of collection: on one hand, the “scholastic” approach (Sol LeWitt, Arman, Edmund de Waal, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hirst) – essentially examples of “traditional” types of collections (natural history, rare Netsuke, Japanese prints, African masks, Etruscan helmets and so on). These collections also share a ‘less is more’ characteristic, but the high quality of the objects that have been gathered by each artist certainly compensates for the relatively small number of items presented.
That said, the visitor also faces large accumulations of objects that have little, if any artistic, historical or aesthetic characteristic. ‘Kitsch’ is the appropriate adjective for Martin Wong/Danh Vo’s collection (very similar in terms of subject to Warhol’s large, tacky cookie jars), but also Dr Lakra’s hilarious anthology of vinyl records from all over the world, apparently selected for their tasteless covers.
Perhaps the most enjoyable way of reading the exhibition is by comparing the collections with the artists’ work. Often, the connection is visually evident, and, in Hirst’s case, it’s only too apparent: his butterflies precision-placed on a mirrored surface shown next to an ‘actual’ stuffed lion, for instance, shows how slight the division is between scientific study and art. Peter Blake’s collection of toys is similarly noteworthy, even though his passion for creepy dolls is a little bit unsettling. Hanne Darboven’s faithful reconstitution of her heterogeneous bric-à-brac could be the most surprising collection when compared with the neat and somewhat austere aesthetic of her own work.
Looking at artists’ hobbyhorses, like this, allows us a quick peek into their personal lives, and, for a few moments, puts them on the same level as ones own grandmother whose great fixation is ceramic dogs.
– Celine Valligny