Anish Kapoor’s sixteenth solo exhibition with Lisson Gallery on London’s Bell Street, opened to the public in late March this year as part of a series of shows commemorating the gallery’s 50 year history. A mere one day before it’s opening, Theresa May formally triggered Article 50 and the ticking time bomb to Britain’s departure from the European Union began.
Not uncommonly, Kapoor has been active in the press. His voice rings within the chorus of other household names of arts professionals working in Britain. He calls it xenophobia, hatred and ultimately, fear. The simple fact of it is that the arts in Britain - museums, institutions and art schools, are under siege. As austerity tightens it’s icy grip and the future of public funding structures for the arts appears precarious at best, separating the timing of Kapoor’s show from current socio-economic politics, from a very real present, seems innocuous and I daresay, insulting. Kapoor himself, however, is keen to vocalise that his work is not agitprop. He seems resolute in not addressing political questions directly with the work itself but rather stresses it’s visceral nature. If that happens to resonate with the current headlines, with fear of nationalism and right wing populism, then that is certainly no bad thing but really - it is all on the viewer.
And so Lisson Gallery’s press paraphernalia calls it a show about form: painting and sculpture, painting versus sculpture, painting becoming sculpture. Certainly forms true to Kapoor’s oeuvre are more than recognisable here. Stainless steel convex mirrors take their seats on the gallery’s whitewashed walls like old friends, or rather as bulwarks of contemporary art history. There is much to say about these pieces but then at the same time nothing at all. They are ultimately works that exemplify his continued interest in breaking from a tradition from the 70s of sculpture as truth to material. New variations on the unsullied and smooth mirrors exhibited world over, these pieces (Horizon (Red), 2016) are occluded by an ombre of matte blood red colour with a glossy satin skin; they reflect and refract. The distorted images that look back at you trapped within the layers of the discs’ lustrous bodies become an emanation of a warped reality: the space in between and really no space at all. Alternative facts? A small nervous voice floats through my head.
Perhaps. The less-than-certain spirit of these mirrored pieces is timely in the current climate but is more viscerally provocative in that they allude to the skin of the thing and inevitably an appreciation of their more painterly nature. There is the feeling of veiling which is also ostensible in the more potent pieces of the show: three large heavy messes made of silicone, fibreglass and earthy crimson and black pigments covered with gauze and mesh that sit both seductively and awkwardly within Lisson Gallery’s bright white space. There’s Bacon, Rembrandt and Soutine in these meaty works. They look like torn sinewy flesh, fat and gristle, severed decaying bones, sticky and oily clots of blood.
To A Mouth, Shade and Red Images in The Red (all 2016) expand on a series of material experiments with painted silicone that Kapoor has worked on for several years but has exhibited only more recently, including the triptych of paintings Internal Object in Three Parts (2013-15) at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam in 2016. Seen as Kapoor’s return to painting, Internal Object in Three Parts screams of trauma and violence in the raw space that Kapoor manages to create between body and psyche. That space being the awareness of the body and a consciousness of our psyche’s reaction to what we see. Similarly these new pieces at Lisson Gallery create a feeling of unrest and entropy through an overwhelmingly emotive representation of corporeal fragility. They are portraits of both the physical and psychological. Undeniably all objects are in fact that very thing, but Kapoor’s are also able to be explicit manifestations of metaphysical polarities: presence and absence, being and non-being and the solid and the intangible.
The ultimately violent nature of these works hark to Kapoor’s historic fascination with the ancient Greek tale of Marsyas and its place within much of Renaissance art history (Bronzino, Titian, Manfredi); the lurid and gory nature of which resonates with a large body of his works. The eponymous work of his Turbine hall commission from 2002, Kapoor created a sprawling PVC membrane stretched across three goliath steel rings. The piece references the flayed skin of Marsyas; the satyr from Ovid’s Metamorphoses who was challenged to a contest of music by the hard and unforgiving god Apollo, lost and was skinned alive as sentence. The skin or the membrane in these three silicone sculptures, are not only all too reminiscent of notions of crime and punishment but also of the very surface of an object as an expanded field and something that moves the material beyond itself.
Yet these new sculptures are also ingeniously restrained, almost cut off from the viewer by Kapoor’s use of gauze as netted encasements for these lumpy forms. These veils feel like traps, something imposed and forced by some overruling authority. Industrial and brutish nuts and bolts attach the gauze to the sculptures, and there is a confrontational contrast between the harsh nature of the man-made fixings with the bodily and biological masses shrouded beneath them. The objects appear to sit within their own self-contained shadow and it is as if these bodies are being muzzled and bowdlerised. There is something affirming or gratifying in that. Agitprop it may not be, but resonate it certainly does with media censorship and political conservatism.
A series of gouache paintings works neatly frame the object works in the exhibition. Although two-dimensional works by Kapoor are rarely presented, they are part of an integral practice from his art school days. Undoubtedly, it is easy to discern forms and the colour palette within these that are also in his more sculptural works. Blood-red lava-like tubes and black melancholic voids give the sense of an almost primordial chaos or the apocalyptic. Yet, these works feel containable or limited. Perhaps there is not something contemporary or compelling enough in them and therefore it makes it hard not to respond to these simply as studies or preparatory drawings as opposed to works in themselves. That said, some of these frenzied and whirling paintings are more interesting than others. It is the more textured and dense surfaces that are the very corporeal tissues of the psyche and that proclaim human passion as rough-sewn and chaotic. Titles like Luna, Grunt, and Tongue (all 2016) make the reeling, dancing and twisted shapes on paper feel more erogenous and charged.In some ways however, there is a niggling wish they these paintings did not give as much quiet relief as they do to Kapoor’s large bloody sculptural objects.
The show’s fundamental strength lies in a sense of underlying fury, raw sensuality, in its metaphysical charge and it’s ultimate poeticism. The works on paper nod to that, but they are not rich or disruptive enough, and if Kapoor has already proven that gross materiality has the power to not only affront but allow us to make connections within contemporary politics and our understanding of the human condition, then why not push that as far as possible.
I leave Lisson Gallery thinking of the death of Marsyas. In the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert most celebrated poem, Apollo and Marsyas, pain is the basis of human experience. Apollo represents an artistry so pure and classical that it has no place for the sufferings of mere flesh and blood. However, as he leaves Marsyas, he wonders whether out of Marsyas’ suffering there can be something greater than he knows.
the victor departs
whether out of Marsyas’ howling
there will not some day arise
a new kind
of art-let us say-concrete
 Herbert, Zbigniew, Apollo and Marsyas, Collected Poems. Translated by Alissa Valles. 2007. Ecco Press