Artists are, perhaps unsurprisingly, particularly partial to objects. That is the key idea behind the Barbican Art Gallery’s new exhibition, which displays the personal collections of Damien Hirst, Hannah Darboven, Rae White, Sol LeWitt and others, interspersed with occasional examples of the artists’ own work. These are the objects that inspire their art, that are displayed in their homes and studios, and that give them pleasure.
The exhibition bursts with all kinds of cheap, expensive, big, colourful, tiny, old, new and drab things, from records to masks, signs and stamps. It is a reminder that art rarely comes from a deep centre of genius or spontaneously from nothing, but more often from an exploration of aesthetic inspirations and from personal iconographies built up over time.
It is a display of deeply personal objects, often suggesting an obsessive need to accrue more and more variations on a theme, such as Martin Parr’s Soviet space dog memorabilia or Andy Warhol’s famous collection of cookie jars. At points the exhibition resembles the best junk shop ever, and no doubt each visitor will pick out their own favourites. I was unavoidably drawn to the vinyl collection of artist Dr Lakra, the display of which features the covers of the best kinds of thrift store records; Nostalguitar!, Sounds from Exotic Island and more.
These covers fill a wall alongside the artist’s Mexicalia and tattoo-infused sketchbooks, with select tracks blaring out through the gallery. Like a junk shop though, the quantity of the objects is occasionally more impressive than the objects themselves, and what might appear a treasure trove of infinitely-exciting ornaments is, on closer inspection, a set of things that are individually tatty and kitsch. But perhaps that is at least partly the point, as these are objects of personal significance rather than explicitly artistic endeavours.
One recurring problem with the Barbican Art Gallery exhibitions is their size, and it does feel as though Magnificent Obsessions is one or two rooms too large. Fatigue sets in, especially with such a dense collection of objects. Of course though, any exhibition like this is essentially a collection of collections, with things brought together by one artist now put together with more by a curator. It’s a difficult proposition for a gallery to reconcile these different elements, and to do so in a way that maintains the pace. Moving through the gallery it can be difficult to tell where the collections meet, and the edges of the show are indistinct.
Piles of packing crates are heaped in one corner of the ground floor, and whilst it’s quite a nice stylistic touch (showing the process of bringing the collections together) I did briefly wonder if they just hadn’t been packed away. But on the upper floor where these packing crates are used as a plinth on which to display some of Peter Blake’s objects, the ‘fragile’ warning stickers highlight that, although some of these objects aren’t the ‘art’ of the artist, they are equally as precious.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is at Barbican Art Gallery, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS until 25 May