Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Caravaggio and the Caravaggesque

On Sunday I visited the National Gallery's Beyond Caravaggio exhibition. Caravaggio seems to delight admirers of both modern and more traditional art and I was keen to find out why.

Born Michelangelo Merisi (or perhaps Amerighi) in Lombardy he took the name Caravaggio from a town in the province of Bergamo where his father worked. It may've been his exact birthplace. It's unclear. In his early twenties, probably 1592, he moved south to Rome and, after an initial spell providing unloved hackwork, he started to concentrate on the vibrant, and crime ridden, street life of Rome. His paintings of card sharps, fortune tellers, and musicians were considered highly original. Not least for their subject matter. They brought him to the attention of powerful patrons such as the cardinal, diplomat, and arts connoisseur Francesco Maria del Monte and the banking intellectual Vincenzo Giustiniani.

Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594-5) was seen as a metaphor for the prolonged suffering that can be experienced after short lived sensual pleasures. Both the morality of the piece and its brushwork furthered Caravaggio's reputation and in 1599 he received his first public commission. To paint the Calling of St Matthew in the Contarelli chapel in Rome's San Luigi dei Francesi, a baroque Catholic church near Piazza Navona.

The public unveiling in 1600 made Caravaggio a star. Something he would remain for the rest of his life - which was only another ten years. In 1601 he painted the Supper at Emmaus. As well as taking still life painting to the next level, imbuing the fruit, and even the cutlery, with nearly as much character as Jesus himself, he became an acknowledged master, the acknowledged master, of the technique known as chiaroscuro, the use of strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to give a sensation of three dimensionality.

Caravaggio had become such a big deal on the Roman art scene that, unsurprisingly, other painters with similar styles sprang up in his wake. Giovanni Baglione's Ecstasy of St Francis (below), made the same year as the Supper at Emmaus, is the earliest known painting in the style that became known as the Caravaggesque. Caravaggio and Baglione were later to become bitter enemies.

Orazio Gentileschi (responsible for David and Goliath, 1605-8, above) was another who felt the wrath of his former friend. Caravaggio and Gentileschi went to court after falling out over the loan of a Capuchin robe and a pair of wings. Sounds like the sort of case Judge Rinder would adjudicate on now.

Caravaggio's fame, and ability, was, by 1602, so assured that he even incorporated himself into that year's Taking of Christ. He's the one holding the lantern at the far right as Judas betrays Christ with a kiss. A kiss that didn't quite land on Jesus' cheek. Again the lighting is sublime.

Whilst many admirers were mere copyists some took their cues from Caravaggio and developed their own styles. Orazio Borgianni's Saint Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ (1610-15) has a forceful energy quite unlike Caravaggio's work. Christopher's fleshy pin reminds me of the contemporary Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and his fondness for depicting human skin in all its realness.

Orazio Gentileschi's Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a surprising burst of colour in a mostly dark, nocturnal looking, exhibition. See, for example, Lo Spadarino's Christ Displaying his Wounds (1625-35) in which the risen Christ exhorts us to become doubting Thomases. The expressive nature of JC's face suggesting a mortality at odds with the fact he's just come back from the dead!

Cardinal Scipione Borghese collected Caravaggios and, for a few decades after Caravaggio's death, the Caravaggesque too. It's interesting to see how two different artists tackled the same subject. Guido Reni's Lot and his Daughters Leaving Sodom (1615-18) and Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri's work of the same name made about the same time.

Both are more colourful than we've seen with Caravaggio himself though both use colour in very different ways. Guerrieri's is far less bashful about what's actually going on here. Lot's daughters are getting their dad pissed so he'll have sex with, and hopefully impregnate, them. I've said it before - cold blooded old times.

In wake of this Artemisia Gentileschi's Susanna and the Elders appears to be almost a proto-feminist work. Artemisia was Orazio's daughter and it's rare enough to find a female artist this far back in history let alone such a bold and innovative one. The fact she opted for the story of Susanna, the Hebrew wife who is falsely accused by lecherous voyeurs and then avoids being tricked into sex (or raped) by them, as her subject matter underlines her credentials greatly.

Drunkenness and incest may have been prevalent in Biblical times but 17c Rome seemed quite happy to take its moral cues from there. Caravaggio was often in trouble. This exhibition tends to shy away from the more sensationalist aspects of his life in favour of concentrating on his work. Its a good idea but there was no way of avoiding the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni. Caravaggio, in one of his many brawls, killed Tomassoni over, it's believed, the small matter of either a gambling debt or even a game of tennis.

The Kingdom of Naples was, at that time, part of the Spanish Empire so Caravaggio escaped the heat of Rome for a while - and not for the first time. Whilst running away from justice is nothing to be admired Naples did prove to be fruitful for Caravaggio's development as an artist. There was a thriving art scene already there which included Jusepe de Ribera who was known as Lo Spagnoletto, Italian for the Little Spaniard. He'd been born near Valencia.  

He could paint a bit too. His Martyrdom of St Bartholomew (1634) shows the moment just before the apostle is skinned alive. As the executioner sharpens his knife Bartholomew looks to heaven, his outstretched arms creating a strong diagonal focus that manages to draw us into this claustrophobic, and violent, scene.

Caravaggio himself wasn't immune to a bit of gore either. Salome receiving the Head of John the Baptist (1609-10) demonstrates that clearly enough. Salome doesn't look overly pleased with her 'gift', looking away more in resignation than horror.

In the years after Caravaggio's death, which is still something of a mystery, the copying of his work really took off. Many artists hadn't been keen to imitate him whilst he was still in Rome as he was known to intimidate, and even beat up, those he felt were stealing his commissions and aping his work.

After his exile from Rome, and even more so after his death, his international reputation spread rapidly. No doubt due to the numerous French, Dutch, and Flemish artists that were based in Rome. Utrecht was a particular, if unlikely, hotbed for Caravaggists.

Gerrit Van Honthorst's Christ Before the High Priest (1617) makes marvellous use of candlelight and Hendrick ter Brugghen's 1626 Concert echoes back to Caravaggio's earlier penchant for portrayal of minstrelsy. The Frenchman Georges de la Tour (Dice Players, 1650-51) did the same with the subject of gambling. De La Tour hardly seems concerned with facial expressions or telling a story and has seemingly isolated the play of light, the chiaroscuro, and made it the point of his work.

Like most things that become fashionable the work of Caravaggio and his followers fell out of vogue equally quickly. By the mid seventeenth century his baroque approach had been replaced by more idealised, classical, techniques. His artwork, like Saint John the Baptist (1603-4) below, was in the wilderness for a long time. It took another three centuries for his reputation to be restored and in the decades that followed he has slowly, but surely, come to be seen as one of the most, if not the most, important artists of his era. And not just because he'll kick your head in if you say otherwise. 

Monday, 28 November 2016

Sherman and Salle:Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone).

Per Skarstedt has opened a new gallery in London. It's on Bennet Street, just around the corner from the Ritz, and its opening show is a joint effort, a conversation if you will, between Cindy Sherman and David Salle. I'll resist the temptation to say it's a cracker.

Sherman and Salle were both born in the US in the fifties. Salle in Oklahoma, 1952. Sherman in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, two years later. Cindy Sherman was certainly the better known of the two artists to me. Not least because I'd been fortunate to attend her recent retrospective at the Broad in Los Angeles (thanks again to Owen for getting me into that). I'd seen David Salle lumped in with Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter in the past and had, somewhat embarrassingly, assumed him to be German.

I shouldn't beat myself up too much though as there is something of the northern European expressionist tradition in his Tiny in the Air from 1989, below. It's even been claimed that Salle's works actually are pastiches of Italian, Dutch, and Russian genre paintings.

All the works in this exhibition were made either in 1989 or 1990. Cindy Sherman's selection are subtitled History Portraits and Salle's Tapestry Paintings. It's very easy to identify who's made what. Where the artists meet is that they both appeared on the scene during what seemed to be a media dominated era (though nothing compared to now) and in how they both drew upon pre-existing imagery as inspiration and then layered the work as thickly as I layer myself when going down the shops on a cold day.

Sherman's historical influences for these Untitled works are said to be Caravaggio, Ingres, Raphael, and Rubens. That's pretty stiff competition to be putting yourself up against and, predictably, she can't help but fall a little short. They're probably best viewed with tongue ever so slightly in cheek. Enjoy the humour of her work and don't get too bogged down in the art-historical stuff.

Salle's diptych Young Krainer, above, makes a very good job of juxtaposing the grand old tradition on the right with the risqué promise of more sensual pleasures on the left. Sherman doesn't muck around either. Whipping her right one out on more than one occasion in this show. Should those of a more lecherous nature get over excited here I must warn you that Sherman makes very good use of prosthetics and close up that's very clear. I checked. I'm conscientious like that.

Looking at Salle's acrylic and oil Backdrop you're not surprised to learn he's worked in costume and set design. It incorporates a harlequin, an Egyptian looking head, and a fresh faced young lady dressed for summer. The background is a mess of muddy scribbles and collapsed landscapes. I'm not sure what he's trying to say with it but it's both intriguing and very satisfying to ponder. I'm not even sure if Salle himself knew exactly what he was trying to do. He's on record as suggesting that he never considered making a living from art to be a possibility so simply made works that he thought would appeal to his circle of friends. I've always thought that to be a good methodology and I'm warmed that it worked out for him.

More exotically, some of Cindy Sherman's works were made in collaboration with the French porcelain house Limoges to mark the 200th anniversary of the French revolution. She prolonged her stay in Europe, travelling to Rome where some of the others were made. Complimenting Salle she studied Renaissance art and based her own portraits around that. In some ways they're self-portraits as Sherman, herself, is always the model. But, also, they're the very opposite of self-portraits. Sherman is always playing a role. Giving you the illusion of intimacy and thus creating a block from getting to know the real her.

The last work I take in is David Salle's Pavane below. It's messy and confusing but it's also quite beautifully made. The feelings it arouses are conflicted. Sherman's art, too, works on different levels. I find I can be simultaneously attracted and repulsed by her work. I think this reflects her feminist beliefs. I think she's subverting the male gaze and making us question the way we view women and I think she does this very well. It's no big surprise that she created artwork for albums by Minneapolis grunge, and proto-riot grrl, band Babes in Toyland.

These are two clever artists who nearly thirty years ago put together a couple of very interesting, if not exactly Earth shattering, series. It's a bold opening from a new edition to the Green Park gallery scene. Looking forward to more.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Headless horses, soulless children, and mud turtles:The Cuban modernism of Wifredo Lam.

"My painting is an act of decolonisation. Not in a physical sense, but in a mental one" - Wifredo Lam.

On the same day the world's most famous Cuban, Fidel Castro, died I visited Tate Modern with my friends Mark and Natalie to see their retrospective of one of the few others, outside the spheres of music and politics, to become internationally famous. Lam is the only Cuban artist I could name and, if I think about it, he may be the first black artist to achieve notoriety too.

His story wends and weaves its way through the history of the twentieth century like Forest Gump. But a clever Forest Gump who paints instead of runs. He was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, in 1902 not long after the country had gained independence following the Spanish-American War. He was actually given the name Wilfredo but due to an administrative error he was registered as Wifredo and everybody seemed cool with that.

Even before he'd commenced his travels his very existence screamed of internationalism. His father, the excellently named Enrique Lam-Yam, had emigrated from China and his mother, Ana Serafina Castilla, was descended from Spanish conquistadors and African slaves. His godmother, Ma'Antonica Wilson was a Santeria princess. All of this, and much more, would come to inform his art throughout the most part of the next eighty years.

He studied at the Escuela Profesional de Pintura y Escultura de San Alejandro in Havana from 1918 to 1923. Following on from a solo show he received a modest scholarship that allowed him to move to Madrid and continue his studies in Spain at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes. There, in the Prado, he encountered the works of Velazquez and Goya. Influences that would initially sit dormant but would appear, in unexpected ways, later in his life.

He was yet to develop his own style but 1927's Hanging Houses lacks nothing in either charm or ability. The Still Life from the same year is equally adept and it seems to me that it's a common trope of galleries, when presenting exhibitions of modern artists, to chuck in a traditional work or two at the start just to let any cynical punters know that, yes, they could paint 'proper' pictures.

In 1929 Lam met, and married, Eva Piriz. But tragedy was soon to visit them as two years later both Eva, and their son Wilfredo, died of tuberculosis. Composition, above, is from 1930. It seems to me a celebration of life. Five years later, four after the death of his wife and child, Lam painted Window, below, which is clearly more pensive and contemplative. Its use of mainly blue paint surely inspired by Picasso who himself had dealt with grieving by adopting a palette, primarily, of this colour. Certainly Lam was taking inspiration from the older artist as well as Henri Matisse.

Lam had become part of the Madrid cultural circle when Franco, in 1936, led the right-wing uprising and triggered the Spanish Civil War. He volunteered for the Republicans but after six months handling toxic substances in a munitions factory his health deteriorated so badly that he had to withdraw to Catalonia to recuperate.

The sculptor Manolo Hugue urged Lam to leave for Paris and introduced him to Picasso. Lam was clearly a fan of Picasso's work but the Spaniard also admired the younger Cuban's paintings. It was a very fruitful time in both of their careers. Picasso's circle of influence was huge and so were his contacts. Lam acquainted himself with the artists Joan Miro and Oscar Dominquez. He also married for a second time. To Helena Holzer, a medical researcher he'd met in Barcelona. How she felt about the below 1943 portrait he made of her I don't know.

With the German invasion of Paris in 1940 Lam (and Holzer) were on the move yet again. They became part of a community of refugees in Marseille that gravitated around the surrealist leader Andre Breton as they waited to escape France. The surrealist influence clearly seeped in to Lam's work. Witness 1943's Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads.

March 1941 saw Lam, Holzer, and three hundred 'intellectuals' board a cargo ship to Martinique in the Caribbean. Martinique was, at that point, controlled by the Vichy regime installed in France following the Nazi invasion and the new arrivals found themselves consigned to an internment camp for a month. Five months later Lam returned to Cuba. He'd been away for the best part of two decades and now saw his homeland with new eyes. He had a better understanding of the racism and poverty inherent within Cuban society. More positively he was also able to appreciate the natural beauty of the landscape and he became fascinated with Santeria, a fusion of Catholicism and West African ritual beliefs.

This seems to be the time he settled on what became his signature style and, I think, the works he made when first adopting this style are the most powerful of his entire life. Unfortunately his accepted masterpiece The Jungle is deemed too fragile to travel these days so you'll have to visit the MoMA in New York if you want to see that. However, the presence of The Eternal Present, an Homage to Alejandro Garcia Caturla makes up for it.

I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough about Santeria to understand the multiple references to Orisha, the horned head of Elegua, the Messenger God, or the double-spear of Chango but I could look at it for ages. I did look at it for ages and kept noticing new things. Woman-horse hybrids, knives shaped like birds, birds shaped like knives, fingers and toes moving into every free space available, cartoonish monkey-like faces, inflatable baby elephants that look like hoovers, and even, seemingly, a precursor to the Android phone emoji being served up on a dish for the delectation of some monstrous creature. It's as funny as it is disturbing and it clearly shows the influence of Picasso's Guernica.

Humour's a much under rated virtue in art but it seems that Lam had it in spades and it doesn't detract from his work. In fact it adds to it. Whilst 1943's Homage to a Mud Turtle is clearly a bit of fun it also demonstrates the scope of the artist. Especially in juxtaposition with one of his larger, more epic, and obviously darker canvases like The Wedding (1947).

By this point Lam's works were becoming instantly recognisable. Breastlike papayas and splayed legs were beginning to feature regularly. Candles and weaponry too. They were as unsettling as they were sexual. Lam had made contact with Cuban writer, and pioneer of magical realism, Alejo Carpentier and he'd also remained in touch with Andre Breton who was now based in New York. All this fed in to his work. This, clearly, was the imperial phase of his career and one, a little part of me thinks, he perhaps let continue just a smidgeon too long.

It's a minor criticism of an otherwise exemplary show and even if his art direction wasn't moving as quickly any more he still was. In late 1945 Lam travelled to Haiti for a solo show in Port-au-Prince. During his stay he witnessed political unrest (again, like Gump, it seemed to follow Lam around) and also attended Vodou ceremonies. Both of which, of course, went on to inform his work.

Another show, in New York, saw Lam and Holzer meeting up with Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Isamu Noguchi, John Cage, Roberto Matta, and Arshile Gorky. Undoubtedly Lam's seat was very much at the top table of the international art world. An application for American citizenship was rejected due to him having a Chinese father and because that particular quota had already been reached.

His colourful life was reflected in the more colourful works Belial, Emperor of the Flies, from 1948 and Horse Headed Woman (1950). By this time, having separated with Holzer, Lam was living alone in Havana. His state of mind was not great but he was still dedicated to his art. The horse-headed women became more woman than horse and, gradually, become eroticised. Maybe he was frustrated.

1950's Clairvoyance, above, nods to Henry Fuseli's notorious 1781 Nightmare whilst Threshold, from the same year, saw Lam inch towards a more geometric style while further incorporating the tribal, ritualistic, elements of his composition.

In 1954 Lam was invited, by Asger Jorn, to participate in the International Meeting of Sculpture and Painting in the Italian seaside town of Albissola Marina. Lam liked it there, surrounded by a liberal community of artists who'd relocated there after the end of WWII, and returned regularly. Even setting up a studio in 1962. This new lease of life gave him the impetus to experiment with new styles and he produced Brush in 1958 which, with the best will in the world, wouldn't have given Jackson Pollock sleepless nights - and not just because Pollock had died two years earlier.

In 1960 Lam got married for the third time. To the Swedish artist Lou Laurin. The wedding took place in New York and a year later they settled in Zurich. If air miles had been invented Lam would certainly have chalked up an inordinate amount. By this time Lam was raking in numerous art prizes and had a major touring exhibition all over Europe. His works continued to be playful and, in many cases, he reworked some of his favourite themes time and again. Soulless Children (1964, below) saw him take further baby steps towards a more precise format but the same year's I Think, I See, I Feel tips its hat back to the forties, to the imperial phase I spoke of earlier.

In later life Lam took to making terracotta dishes. Even then he used the vocabulary of the mask and the Latin American folkloric elements. He travelled back to Cuba often to try to encourage local artists and to give Cubans a rare chance to experience the European avant-garde. His last visit back to the country of his birth was in 1978 for medical treatment after suffering a stroke. Four years later he died in Paris. He was 79 years old and, it seems to me, that he'd lived four or five lifetimes in those eight decades.

This was a fascinating exhibition chock-full of wonderful art. I learnt a lot about Wifredo Lam, the art world of the mid-twentieth century, and the volatile political era he lived through. Somebody should really make a film of this man's life.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

River of Death

The first time I found myself referring to the Thames as 'the river', without affecting it, I felt I'd become a proper Londoner. A rubicon had been crossed. For the Thames is the very heart of London. Without it there would be no London as we now know it. It weaves threadlike through the city telling its history and spreading out like the opening credits to Eastenders. This considered it's surprising how little we know about it.

With that in mind I'd got myself down to The Bell on Middlesex Street for another evening with the London Fortean Society. They were hosting Religion and Ritual by the River:Archaeology in the Inter-Tidal Zone which, wisecracked host Scott Wood, sounds like a Joy Division album title.

I'm not sure if speaker Nathalie Cohen is a Joy Division fan but she laughed gamely, and commented on how good it was to be able to deliver a lecture with a gin'n'tonic in one hand, before launching into an absolutely fascinating hour or so about the history of the river, what's been found in it, and why we think it got there in the first place - and if she didn't know she could simply claim it was 'ritualistic'.

Nathalie works for the Thames Discovery Programme at the Museum of London and she began her talk by asking the sold out audience to raise their arm if they'd ever thrown anything into water. Nearly everybody did. I'm not quite sure what sort of person hasn't thrown anything into water but before we could ponder this we were on to a list of things that have been found on the foreshore of the Thames by Nathalie, her colleagues (many of whom were in attendance), and assorted dog-walkers etc;

It soon became pretty apparent that a lot of the find had to do with death. Their were bones wrapped in twine, guns and more primal forms of weaponry, remnants of ritualistic cat burials, remnants of Hindu burials where the Thames had been used a surrogate Ganges, entire skeletons, and lots, and lots of skulls. No wonder some sandcastle architects have taken to sculpting sand skulls down by the Oxo Tower.

Many of the actual skulls date back to Neolithic times, some are more recent Saxon finds, and a few from the last 250 years. One example saw the police called. They searched the area and found no evidence of wrongdoing or, in fact, no evidence of anything whatsoever. The next day when the tide went out Nathalie and her team returned to the site and found an entire human skeleton, give or take a few toe bones.

Stuff's washing up on the shores of the Thames all the time and there are mudlarks out scouring the banks most days. Most of the detritus is fairly useless, mostly invaluable, but every now and then something of note will turn up. Most of the 'treasure' tends to be found in two sites. Around Tower Bridge and the Pool of London and further upstream in Brentford.

This probably relates to ancient crossing points where weapons were discarded either intentionally, accidentally, or lost in battle. It's worth bearing in mind that the Thames now is considerably narrower than it was before Joseph Bazalgette's 19c embankment was put in places. At some points it was up to a mile wide and, because of this, river finds have been made in places which now seem some distance from the path of the Thames.

Westminster once sat on an island and through the genius of photoshopping we can see what it would look like if the Houses of Parliament had been built at that time.

There are many reasons why the Thames, and rivers in general, have become associated with death. Some are down to simple hygiene. Dead bodies aren't healthy things to have lying around. Washing them out to sea seemed one of the best things to do with them. Foreigners, especially, were treated to this after their death. The logic seemingly being that it was as close as they could get to 'home' - and this was a few millennia pre-Brexit!

Other times the dumping of bodies in the murkiest, foulest stretches of the Thames was seen as a punishment for those who'd sinned or led immoral lives. I've lived in London for twenty years and, in my head, a walk along the South Bank has always been a delight, something you'd recommend to a visitor, but before the London Eye, Tate Modern, and Millennium Bridge all went up at the turn of millennium it seems things had, indeed, been very different. At least according to a quote Nathalie showed us, from 1996, suggesting the dank, filthy river held none of the attractions of the Tiber or the Seine and was simply an obstacle to be crossed. How things have, thankfully, changed.

It wasn't all death, destruction, and dirt though. There were oddities too - and even tokens of love. In the former camp the numerous shopping trolleys that wash up on the banks occasionally. Some of them representing supermarkets that are no more and, thus, of interest to social historians at least.

Another common find relates to booze. Both in the form of bottles made in the various glass factories that lined the river and in the form of beer tokens, coins that could be used to purchase ale in hostelries either in the capital, elsewhere in the country, or even as far afield as Paris.

The current big thing is padlocks. You've probably seen them. Lovers write their names on them, tie them to a railing, and leave them as a symbol of their, hopefully, eternal love. The chat digressed to where this began, Paris and Helsinki were both suggested, before Nathalie told the story of finding a broken padlock that had been chucked into the river with graffiti suggesting the eternal love had not held. She felt sorry for the spurned lover and threw the Chubb back into the wash. I'm sure she felt that satisfying splash that (almost) all of us get when we lob something into water. She deserved it.

The story of these Thames finds, necessarily, lacked a coherent narrative and I'd love to investigate further in the hope of making my own story. Probably the best way to make sense of it would be to join Nathalie and the other mudlarkers on a foreshore walk. I'm keen. Are you?

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Theatre night:Lazarus.

Imagine if Simon Cowell had drunk an entire jar of cough syrup, a really big one, and then fallen asleep in his armchair and had a nightmare that the contestants in his methodically choreographed X-Factor Bowie special had mutinied and all hell was breaking loose. Then imagine Adam Curtis filmed and edited the whole thing. It'd be hard to work out if it was good or bad but there'd certainly be elements of both. Two things at least would be very certain. The songs would be excellent and anyone watching it would be fairly damned confused.

That's pretty much how I felt watching Enda Walsh's Lazarus at the Kings Cross Theatre. I had my reservations about it when my friend Paola suggested we get tickets. The reservations were many and of many kinds. Would it be a cheap cash in on Bowie's death? That couldn't be the case as it premiered in New York in 2015 while he was still alive. Would it be too much of a jukebox musical or, conversely, would it not be enough of one, striving too hard to catch Bowie's otherness but ending up like some dreadful sixth form showcase? After all, a big part of the charm of Bowie's alien talent was that it was grounded in a very earthy, very English, geniality.

But I know when to go out and when to stay in. So with the added promise, as has become traditional with Paola, of a delicious Mexican meal in DF on Tottenham Court Road beforehand my curiosity got the better of me and I found myself sat in a surprisingly capacious temporary theatre space in the new Kings Cross development awaiting what I did not know.

The story is, roughly, a sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth. Thomas Jerome Newton is still on Earth, still unable to die, and still unable to return home. He's taken to drinking gin for breakfast and raging against the non-dying of the light. Trying to work out exactly who the other characters are, or what they represent, is trickier. There's Newton's home help Elly who's not so secretly in love with him. Her angry, drunk, and jealous husband. Then there's Sophia Anna Caruso who, as Newton's 'muse', may or may not be a figment of his imagination.

The fact that sometimes the characters dress as each other and, occasionally, there's a video representation of them on stage as well as the actor means it all gets a little bewildering. Though I think that's the point. To try to convey some kind of liminal, dreamlike state. It works. Sometimes. On other occasions it either gets silly or, worse, drags a bit. What with this frankly bonkers, barely understandable, plot I was always happy when the tight-as-you-like band struck up a tune.

Michael C Hall, better known as TV's serial killing forensic analyst Dexter, plays Newton and, luckily, he's got a very good singing voice which lends itself well to Bowie's back catalogue. Not as good as Bowie himself, of course, but then who has? Amy Lennox as Elly puts in a great performance but both her and Caruso, being female, suffer a little bit with the songs. They've got great voices but Bowie's songs, him being a man and all that, do seem to lend themselves better to the male voice. Which means when Lennox and Caruso sing we veer awfully close to Disney musical territory. Disney's dream debased?

Most of the songs worked. Heroes, Always Crashing In The Same Car, All The Young Dudes, Absolute Beginners, and Where Are We Now? merit particular praise. The line in Life On Mars, 'It's on America's tortured brow / Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow' that once seemed to come from the gibberish school of cut-and-paste lyricism sounded more topical than ever.

Changes didn't quite come off and there was nowhere near enough of Sound and Vision, one of my very favourite Bowie songs. Bigger bones of contention, and a pub chat that could span several pints, were the absence of songs like Starman, Queen Bitch, Let's Dance, Space Oddity, and, for a small, but discerning, group of us, anything from the Decca years, the Anthony Newley period. Of course if they'd played every Bowie song of note we'd probably still be in the theatre now.

So. Was it the freakiest show? Not really. It probably wasn't as out there as it aspired to be although it was mostly very enjoyable. I didn't even mind that Newton's rocket looked like something Mr Spoon would fly to Button Moon in.

Was it a worthy, if unintended, eulogy for David Bowie? Probably not but how could it be? How could you, in less than two hours, convey the huge cultural wealth the man bestowed on the nation and the world? It'll take generations to unpick that.

So did it piss on the Dame's legacy? Not at all. For a start he did enough of that in his lifetime. Just think of Tin Machine and the Dancing in the Streets video with Mick Jagger. Lazarus was equal parts respectful to the canon whilst still having the balls to take a few liberties with it. For that I think Bowie would approve. He was never shy of innovation. It always seemed to me he'd rather try something new, even if it didn't come off, than rest on his laurels as an elder statesman of rock.

I could view Lazarus as a glorious failure but that'd be doing it a disservice. I'd prefer to see it as a qualified success. A bit of a mess but one that, like a carpet that someone's done something awful on, you can't help but stare at.

In 1980, in Denver, David Bowie performed as the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick. Well, the elephant, maan, in this room was clearly Bowie's absence. With every song you couldn't help yourself wishing to hear the ol' Goblin King wrap his inimitable lungs around them one last time but that can't, and won't, happen ever again. Truly we are floating in a most peculiar way.

Ed Ruscha's outta gas?

Is Ed Ruscha taking the piss? Does he really expect to pass this stuff off as decent art? Words written in various sizes on large boards and posted up on gallery walls for bemused punters to gawk at completely devoid of emotion. Will this do?

Many visitors to Ruscha's Extremes and In-Betweens exhibition at the Gagosian's newish Grosvenor Hill gallery will probably feel like that but, you've guessed it, not I. Whilst I'd concede these new works are not a patch on his classic gas stations they're intriguing to look at and, true to the ethos of Pop Art, you won't need very long to do so.

According to the press release these works, all made this year, "motion a dynamic interplay of words and their meanings in ascending and descending shifts of scale and tone that echo the relation of macrocosm to microcosm". What they're saying is sometimes big things like 'Universe' are written in larger lettering than smaller things like 'Tampa, Florida' and sometimes the opposite. If for example 'Silence' is bigger than 'Whisper'. The sand dune effects in these acrylics are, one assumes, supposed to represent wrinkles. That's if the titles, Silence with Wrinkles and Universe with Wrinkles, are anything to go by. The smallest writing is so small you have to walk right up to the canvas to read it (and even then it's tricky) giving you a tiny approximation of the immersive experience some get when spending time in front of a Rothko.

I'm pretty sure Ruscha isn't searching for such lofty comparisons but the backgrounds on their own could work as abstract expressionist pieces. The woody effect of Inch, Mile (below) is highly satisfying yet, for some reason, the upturned triangle of Really Old (above) irritated me. Who knows why? My guess is I prefer the simplicity of the rectangular pieces. Perhaps I'm simple.

Similar to listening to minimal compositions any minor change of scale, colour, or shape seems to stand out a mile so the use of black on Bio, Biology catches the eye. Unfortunately simply adding a letter to the word in each of its reiterations does seem like a pretty lame idea. Like something I'd scrawl in the back of one of my old schoolbooks during a particularly dull Geography lesson.

Ruscha has named the font he uses for these works 'Boy Scout utility modern' and here's the artist himself explaning the thinking behind that "If the telephone company was having a picnic and asked one of their employees to design a poster, this font is what he’d come up with. There are no curves to the letters – they’re all straight lines – and I’ve been using it for years. I guess it’s my font, because it’s become comfortable to me, and I can’t get beyond it – and don’t need to get beyond it."

A quote that says both nothing and quite a lot. It suggests to me that at the age of 78 Ruscha has reached a time when he's done with frills and frippery (not that he could ever be considered a baroque or rococo painter in the first place) and is ready to pare things right back. Sun, Atom (below) making the most extreme case of this. Yet he still finds room to include both Texas and a horse suggesting he's not quite ready to leave behind earthbound Americana just yet.

Arrows, perhaps because it uses symbols rather than words, is one of the most visually pleasing pieces on show. Sometimes using words in paintings can seem like cheating although there's a long tradition of it, From Gillray and Cruikshank's 19c satires via Roy Lichtensein's comic book adaptions through to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger's more personal/political sloganeering. I'd never really got on with Richard Prince's 'joke' works but have been slightly fascinated by On Kawara, the Japanese conceptual artist, who simply painted the date everyday. A work of lunatic application. Most of us struggle to post a song every day for a week when doing one of those Facebook best songs of the 70s 'challenges'.

Ruscha's work falls somewhere between Kawara's strictly defined parameters and Prince's more loosely defined aesthetic and because of that it doesn't always hit the mark for me. Years Months Weeks seems a pretty decent distillation of what he's trying to do with this series of paintings.

Maybe one day in a large retrospective of Ruscha's entire career these paintings will make a diverting side room. In the grand scheme of things, however, the Hollywood sign from behind, the fenced off buildings, and, yes, the Standard gas station will be what he's best remembered for.

If you do get along please put some time aside for admiring the architecture of the Gagosian's largest London gallery. Designed by the firm Caruso St John (who'd previously been responsible for the Walsall New Art Gallery and Westbourne Grove's Brick House) it's a formidably accomplished modernisation of an old Brutalist block. It manages to simultaneously catch your eye whilst also blending in with its surrounds in a surprisingly quiet corner of Mayfair. Go for the art. Stay for the architecture.