BY TABISH KHAN
Our pick of the best exhibitions to see right now in London’s galleries and museums. Check ahead before visiting, as many venues still require advance booking or make alterations due to changes in the Covid situation, or may have different opening times over the holiday season.
Exhibitions in Central London
BEAUTY IS FLEETING: As you enter the gallery, candy-coloured walls may give the impression it’s all smiles inside, but it belies the exhibition of disturbing paintings where cutesy characters sit within nightmarish hellscapes where gravity is inverted. It all centres on a film downstairs where a young and pretty character called Mi goes through a horrible ordeal involving a villainous mirror, an experience that touches on both climate change and consumerism’s obsessions with looking perfect. It’s disturbing and brilliant work from Rachel Maclean, an inventive artist who never disappoints.
Rachel Maclean: That’s not Mi! at Josh Lilley. Until 15 January 2022, free. ★★★★★ (Tuesday-Saturday)
A FIGHTING LIFE: Abandoned at birth and raised at the Foundling Hospital before being press-ganged into the Navy and fighting at the Battle of Trafalgar. Recreated here in a dynamic painting, the story of George King is a fascinating one. Using his personal records on his encounters with slavery and the brutality of war, this small exhibition doesn’t contain too many objects, but it uses them to tell a captivating story.
Fighting Talk: One Boy’s Journey from Abandonment to Trafalgar at The Foundling Museum. Until 27 February 2022, £10.50 (includes admission to the museum). ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
ARE YOU HAVING A LAUGH?: Which cartoon is funnier, A or B? That’s the question this small display is asking to help formulate some scientific research on what makes a cartoon funny — and we can fill in forms to be part of that research. Do you prefer political commentary or a bit of a slapstick? Some are easy choices, others a lot trickier. And of course, I can’t wait to find out whether my taste is in the minority or majority. It’s this kind of innovative exhibition that small museums should be putting on and the fact that it generates a lot of laughs is a much welcomed bonus.
The Laughter Lab at The Cartoon Museum. Until 5 June 2022, £8.50 (includes admission to the museum). ★★★★★ (Tuesday-Sunday)
DISSOLVING BODIES: Beautifully executed paintings of bodies and faces start to break apart as if dissolving into the air, or on to the surface of the painting itself. There’s a beautiful and surreal dream-like quality to Henrik Aa Uldalen’s figurative paintings. Another series has a darker element, where he has taken a blowtorch to some other works so the canvas has literally melted away. I’ve been a fan of his work for some years and this is his strongest showing yet.
Henrik Aa Uldalen: Love in Exile at JD Malat Gallery. Until 8 January 2022, free. ★★★★☆ (Monday-Saturday)
AN ARTIST’S JOURNEY: German renaissance man Albrecht Dürer travelled all around Western Europe learning from other artists. This show follows his journey, with his works and works by those other artists hung side by side. The downside to this is that many of the other painters works feel superior to his, so it’s anti-climactic at times. The upside is that Dürer was a fantastic printmaker, and any chance to see his prints should always be cherished. It’s these smaller works that all visitors should focus on, whether they be of a melancholic winged figure or a knight being accompanied by Death.
Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at The National Gallery. Until 27 February 2022, £20. ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)
REWRITING HISTORY: A man looks over a mountain, lording it over all he surveys. It’s a familiar scene from a painting by Caspar David Friedrich from the Romantic era of painting. But wait — this time it’s a Black man, and his clothing is definitely not from the 19th century. It’s part of an exhibition of paintings by Kehinde Wiley, taking Romantic paintings and giving them a contemporary Black twist, so persons afloat on a raft are in fact refugees fleeing their homelands. While it’s only a few paintings, they definitely have an impact, both in scale and by covering a topic that’s extremely relevant today as we look back and challenge how the history of Europe has been written. It’s accompanied by a stirring film on six screens that complements the paintings.
Kehinde Wiley: The Prelude at The National Gallery. Until 18 April 2022, free. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
READY, PLAY: David Shrigley is known for having fun with his playful drawings, and has taken his levity to a new ranking with his Tennis Ball Exchange in Mayfair. Visitors can hand in a used tennis ball, decorated however they like, in exchange for a brand new one, bouncing off the idea of our modern consumer culture where we value new things over old, while also recognising the creativity in the things we often discard. It’s a ball — game, set and match Shrigley.David Shrigley: Mayfair Tennis Ball Exchange at Stephen Friedman Gallery. Until 8 January 2022, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
CHILD’S PLAY: Children play on a precarious ledge and don masks across neighbourhoods in New York, in the candid street photography of Helen Levitt. This selection mixes everyday street scenes with the surreal as people adopt contorted poses on the pavement. While not every photo hits the mark, it’s a show dedicated to a photographer I wasn’t familiar with, and her portfolio definitely merits a major exhibition.
Helen Levitt: In The Street at The Photographers’ Gallery. Until 13 February 2022, £5. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
LEAPING THROUGH LANDSCAPES: A horse leaps out over the water into an empty landscape — or is it leaping between the trees? Compare a finished painting by the master of landscapes John Constable to his original sketch — and I use that term loosely, as the ‘sketch’ is a masterpiece in itself. It’s a fascinating look at how an artist formulates a painting, with several sketches on display, even if it’s a rather academic exhibition that’s likely to have niche appeal to landscape painting and Constable enthusiasts.
Late Constable at Royal Academy of Arts. Until 13 February 2022, £19. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
Exhibitions in West London
SATIRE APLENTY: William Hogarth’s satirical scenes of London life are filled with humour and moral lessons. But was he alone, or did he have European contemporaries? This show highlights how talented painters were creating work in other great cities like Paris, Venice and Amsterdam. And while they had none of the biting wit, it simply highlights what a great painter Hogarth was. Sure, the theme is rather loose and some of the contemporary interpretations of his work are off the mark, but if you want lots of Hogarth — and who doesn’t? — then this is the place to be.
Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain. Until 20 March 2022, £18. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
INDUSTRIAL BEAUTY: Think industrial processes, and we usually think of dirty coal plants and messy factory floors. Not so when portrayed through the lens of photographer Maurice Bloomfield. Shots including a simulated lightning strike on ceramic insulators, rows of nylon bobbins casting shadows on the floor, sparking machinery in a wire manufacturing plant, and a flare from North sea oil rig all look remarkable. These snaps were taken in the ’50s and ’60s, and there’s a real sense that although they’re beautiful, they are of their time, as such a rosy view on heavy industry is no longer acceptable given the climate emergency we’re facing.
Maurice Bloomfield: Industrial Sublime at V&A. Until 6 November 2022, free. ★★★★☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
ANCIENT SCIENCE: How did the Ancient Greeks use science to improve and perfect music, sculpture and sailing? Science Museum has created a small display with videos, interactive elements and artefacts with a modern twist to show us how advanced the Ancient Greeks were. While the amount to see here is limited, it is a free display and the statue of Hermes recovered from a shipwreck is a spectacular sight worth the visit alone.
Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom at Science Museum. Until 5 June 2022, free. ★★★☆☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
POWERFUL PHOTOGRAPHY: The annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize has moved into a temporary home at Cromwell Place while National Portrait Gallery undergoes a major refurbishment. Thankfully it still delivers in it new home, with moving photographic portraits of First Nations aboriginal women hanging alongside stories recollecting their difficult lives, and a large Black man reclining, imitating the pose we relate to female nudes from classical art, highlighting a body positivity debate that exists among men but is seldom spoken about. These are some of the stunning winners in a fantastic year for this portrait prize.
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2021 at Cromwell Place. Until 2 January 2022, £8. ★★★★☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
AMY’S LEGACY: It’s sad to think it’s been a decade since Amy Winehouse’s death, and the Design Museum is marking it with an exhibition about her legacy in music, fashion and her strong links to London — particularly Camden. There’s an opportunity to listen to her music in a recording studio set up, see many of her iconic dresses and watch an impressive immersive recreation of a performance of Tears Dry On Their Own. The show can’t duck how she was often demonised by the press, but ultimately the focus of the exhibition is to be a moving and fitting celebration of her life, her music and her talent — and in all of that it definitely succeeds.
Amy: Beyond the Stage at Design Museum. Until 10 April 2022, £14.50. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
Exhibitions in East London
DON’T SHOOT EM UP: Here’s a new twist to a shoot ‘em up video game, making you hesitant about pulling the trigger. I’m handed a gun and given the task of supporting Black trans persons and only eliminating those who oppose them, but it’s purposefully made really tricky to recognise who and what I’m supposed to shoot — keeping my gun down ironically feels like my best shot at survival. It’s a clever role reversal and acts as both awareness raising activism and a wider critique of the glorification of gun culture.
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley: She Keeps Me Damn Alive at Arebyte. Until 18 February 2022, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
Exhibitions in South London
ACROSS THE ARTS: Paintings, theatre sets, poetry and music — this exhibition of artist Lubaina Himid’s work shows her full versatility and gives a lot of context to the range of work by the Turner Prize-winning artist. However, it can be hard to engage with, as all the works feel like they’re loaded with context but the information is frustratingly lacking, making the work interesting but very difficult to get to grips with.
Lubaina Himid at Tate Modern. Until 3 July 2022, £16. ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)
AN ALIEN WORLD: In these grey grisly months what we need is a bit of colour, and the Lydia Chan exhibition at Now Gallery has it in spades, imagining an alien world with colourful creations. Thankfully there’s no sci-fi hostility in sight, just a playful environment that can be made more animated through augmented reality filters applied via your phone. It’s joyous, fun, and children will love it.
Lydia Chan: Your Ship has Landed at Now Gallery. Until 6 March 2022, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
Exhibitions outside London
LASERS AT THE READY: Outside the stately home of Houghton Hall, a giant glowing orb cuts through the darkness and laser lights guide us around the pitch black grounds. The place has been transformed by Chris Levine’s light artworks, and more surprises wait indoors as a series of lights reveal their trickery when viewed out of the corner of my eye as I spot a portrait of the artist — even now I have no idea how he pulls that off. This is a spectacular exhibition that takes us to the limits of what light and art can achieve combined, making the trip to Norfolk well worth it.
Chris Levine: 528Hz Love Frequency at Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Until 23 December 2021, £18. ★★★★★ (Thursday-Saturday)