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Naked Youth, Nylon Tights, Layer Cake Spice Up London Exhibits

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"The Blue Rigi, Sunrise" (1842) by J.M.W. Turner. The work, rescued from export out of the U.K. in a national fundraising campaign in 2007, features in the ''Watercolour'' exhibition at London's Tate Britain gallery through Aug. 21. Source: Tate via Bloomberg

Feb. 25 (Bloomberg) -- A flame burns out of a metal bench, and at unscheduled intervals a naked young man appears and sits at the other end of the seat.

This work by Roger Hiorns, “Untitled” (2005-2010) is the most memorable item in “British Art Show 7” at the Hayward Gallery in London. The undressed youth sees to that.

Don’t ask me what it means. You won’t get much help from the catalog either (“it is within the uncomfortable relationship between doubt and belief in our contemporary present that Hiorns’s sculptures operate”). It may be a metaphor for something, and raises interesting questions, such as: If you were to buy “Untitled” (2005-2010) on the art market, would the nude come with it, and if so, where would you keep him?

The nude on the bench is a good metaphor for the whole show: It’s striking to look at, and resistant to rational explanation. Not that that’s bad. As such things go, British Art Show 7 is rather good. It contains a large, rambling selection of works, all contemporary and made in Britain.

Of these, some are, like the Hiorns piece, intriguing. Spending too much time with some of the other works might destroy the will to live. Emily Wardill’s “Sea Oak” (2008), for example, consists of 51 minutes of blank film projection, accompanied by interviews with members of a left-leaning Californian think tank. That sounds like a metaphor too.

The selectors have cast their net widely. Among the 39 artists on show is Alasdair Gray, best known for his novels. Several others, including Hiorns, Wolfgang Tillmans and Sarah Lucas have featured on Turner Prize shortlists. The rest will be unknown, except to contemporary-art-spotting anorak types.

Gin and Eggs

On closer examination, the exhibits fall into three broad subdivisions: old-fashioned painting, strange sculptural objects and wacky narrative. In the last category, for example, is a collection of drawings, texts and an installation by Charles Avery about an imaginary, nameless island, whose inhabitants eat gin-soaked eggs (“bitterly disgusting, yet ruinously addictive”).

Among the paintings, Gray’s -- more like colored drawings -- caught my eye. They are, as befits an author, in the idiom of book illustrations and with a quirky, obsessive quality. Lucas’s series of “NUDS,” fashioned from tan-colored nylon tights, are outstanding in the weird-object department. They succeed in looking seedy, verging on obscene, without resembling anything identifiable. That’s good.

Chocolate Cake

Karla Black has works in both “British Art Show 7” and “Watercolour” at Tate Britain. Her “Brains Are Really Everything” (2010), a cross between a ziggurat and a chocolate layer cake made out of earth and soap among other materials, is one of the more arresting 3-D pieces at the Hayward.

But her “Opportunities for Girls” at Tate Britain, a crumpled cellophane sheet coated with paint, toothpaste, hair gel and shampoo, makes me think, “Stop, whoa! This show is getting out of hand.” Fortunately, it comes right at the end.

You can see how this object got included. There is a well-defined tradition of watercolor painting in Britain, including great works by Turner, William Blake and others, right up to the 20th century. It may have seemed predictable just to corral a lot of that into a show. So the curators extended the range to include the unexpected.

To an extent, this works. It’s good to see such items as botanical illustrations, medieval miniatures and 17th-century maps. At the other end of the time scale, though, the efforts to make watercolor seem edgy and contemporary get frantic.

For the most part, this is a high-quality selection of Blake, Turner, Cotman, Girtin and so on -- predictable maybe, but that’s what most visitors will expect and enjoy.

“British Art Show 7” is at the Hayward Gallery in London through April 17. Information: http://www.haywardgallery.org.uk. “Watercolour” is at Tate Britain through Aug. 21. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/.

(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.

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

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