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Miley, Zac Fade; Baroque Obsession; Big Blocks: London Galleries

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"Dance Class at Tring with Shadows..."
"Dance Class at Tring with Shadows, Reflections and Jesse in Fourth Position," (2007-9) by John Wonnacott, on show at Agnew's Gallery, 35 Albemarle St., London until Feb 25. Photographer: Richard Shellabear/Agnew's Gallery via Bloomberg

Feb. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Celebrity isn’t what it used to be, in art at any rate.

Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe looked like a goddess, or maybe a lapsed saint. Whereas the celebs in Richard Phillips’s show “Most Wanted” at White Cube, Hoxton Square, London, (through March 5) seem more like the human equivalents of the fashion and perfume brands whose logos cover the walls of the gallery.

Phillips is an American artist who takes the photographic imagery of the mass media as his starting point and produces oil paintings by methods that date back to the 15th-century Flemish master Jan van Eyck (priced at $235,000). His subjects in this batch of work are allegedly 10 of the U.S.’s most “instantly recognizable” faces from films, television and music.

Many of these -- among them Justin Timberlake, Kristen Stewart, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus -- look interchangeable. Such is fame today. The effect is cheesy.

That could be the artist’s message. There are those who argue that in the online age, as the power of the old media wanes, the cult of celebrity -- depending as it does on mass communication -- is bound to fade too. This exhibition implies celebrity worship has passed the stage of decadence and may be heading for oblivion.

Classy Showbiz

For a different take on showbiz, try the exhibition of new work by John Wonnacott, “A Tale of Two Houses” at Agnew’s Gallery, 35 Albemarle St., London W1 (through Feb. 25). Most of these new paintings concern the performing arts. Wonnacott, who painted a group portrait of Britain’s royal family in 2000, was commissioned to document the production of the U.K. comedy film “First Night,” starring Richard E. Grant and Sarah Brightman (scheduled to premiere on Feb. 27).

This was shot at an Edwardian country house on the Scottish border. Wonnacott found an even more spectacular subject in Tring Park, a school for the performing arts housed in a Baroque mansion once owned by the Rothschild family. Wonnacott’s pictures of young dancers practicing in the vast country-house library are themselves as intricately Baroque as anything he has done.

His unique feature as a painter is an almost obsessional concentration on perspective. Many modernists ignored this Renaissance discovery. Wonnacott, instead, opens it out, depicting a wider angle than the human eye, let alone the camera lens, can actually see. While this produces some strange distortions, the effect in these pictures is exhilarating. Prices for paintings range from 18,000 pounds ($28,912) to 125,000 pounds, drawings 1,800 pounds to 10,000 pounds.

Facing Victoria

In the bemusing exhibition “Modern British Sculpture,” which opened last month at the Royal Academy, a piece by the abstract sculptor Phillip King confronts a massive 19th-century bronze monument to Queen Victoria. I still don’t understand why, but the King piece emerges well from the encounter.

There’s much more of his work on view in “Phillip King: A Survey Through 50 Years” at Flower’s, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 (until Feb. 19). King, ex-president of the Royal Academy, is the sort of senior figure who deserves a career retrospective somewhere such as Tate Britain. This isn’t really a substitute.

Although it contains a sprinkling of sculptures dating back to the early 1960s -- when King was at the cutting edge -- the bulk of the show is recent. Though his work has changed over the years, King has ended up close to where he began: big, simple shapes and bright colors. Prices range from 6,500 pounds to 58,000 pounds.

Walking around them gives you the impression you’ve been shrunk and dropped among the play bricks and blocks on a toddler’s floor. Some people might prefer that to finding themselves in a gallery of this month’s celebs.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at martin.gayford@googlemail.com or Martingayford on http://twitter.com/home.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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