On a dark November afternoon we tooled down to Vauxhall through the snarling traffic, wrapped up against the pinching cold. Cabinet Gallery began life in a gloriously louche 19th century apartment on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, before moving to premises on then unfashionable Old Street. Independent, to the point of idiosyncrasy, the gallery has a formidable track record in producing Turner Prize nominees, but that’s about as ‘establishment’ as it gets.
Some of the most interesting thinking around art institutions in the past decade has involved a consideration of how to resist the gigantism that has come to be synonymous with the most celebrated contemporary museums and galleries, while staking territory that maintains a critical and urgent dialogue with the present. The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven would be emblematic of this. Away from the grand white voids of the international Mayfair galleries, and south of the river, Cabinet has done something quite original. The new building stands on Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, next to the now rather chic city farm with its collection of exotic ducks neatly installed on a pond by the gate. For a couple of centuries this site was known as London’s hedonistic playground, its distance from Westminster allowing for a spirit of anarchy and sexual license.
Most of this freestanding little tower is devoted to office and residential space, and the gallery itself occupies the ground floor only. The footprint of the building is a non-standard twelve-sided shape that lends the interior a pleasing characterfulness; coming through the entrance, one descends a short flight of steps into the exhibition space. Architects pay close attention to thresholds, to the way one moves from one situation in to the next and so it is with a sense of being carefully ‘prepared’ that one addresses the art on show.
For the next two weeks or so you have the chance to see a small show of small paintings and drawings by Jim Nutt. They are incredible. The artist was born in 1938 and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early sixties just as Abstract Expressionism was ceding the spotlight to Pop Art. Together with other students he and his wife, the painter Gladys Nilsson, formed a group that came to be known as the Hairy Who. Allied to the Chicago Imagists, their style was a kind of surrealising Pop, with a cartoonish, eschatological gonzo character that earned them a swathe of group shows across the US and beyond from 1966 through to the early 70s.
Since the mid-90s Nutt has focused exclusively on painting female heads; the works in this current exhibition date from 2010 to 2016. They are not portraits, although the artist does admit to being a close observer of people in the street. Writing in the New Yorker, David Nolan referred to them as a kind of ‘geek classicism’. The works are of uniform size, and draw one in with a power to match a Lucas Cranach Adam and Eve. Nutt uses thinned acrylic paints. This is significant because the colour used this way has a translucency that means he has to build up many layers of paint to achieve the desired effect. He is interested not in brush strokes, the paintings are entirely without gesture, but in the impasto brought about by this layering which in turn lends the heads an extraordinary three-dimensionality. Each female typically has eyes of differing colours: blue and brown, or brown and green, as well as a gravity-defying architectural hair-do. Each wears a top of exquisite and intricate geometrical design. Everyone is also blessed with a nose that seems to exist in a different time-space continuum: as if a nose-shaped space were actually a window into another universe. Before you dial Pseuds Corner, please go and take a look, and see if you can describe them better. Art critics have conjured the names of Van Eyck, Salvador Dali and Ingres to try to encapsulate the extreme technical facility, the sophistication and the strangeness of Nutt’s work. He is an artist with a deep knowledge of historical painting, so these references will certainly be embedded, but the work is as emphatically original as it is profoundly pleasing.
As ever, reproductions tell only a fraction of the story. You need to see this show.
Cabinet Gallery, 132 Tyers Street, Lambeth, London SE11 5HS. Open Wednesday – Saturday 12.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until Saturday 17 December 2016. www.cabinet.uk.com