Wednesday, 9 May 2012

New website

Please subscribe and link to, which I will be using from now on in place of this site.



Monday, 7 May 2012

Beginner's Guide to Contemporary Art (round 3) begins 14th July

My new beginner's guide to contemporary art for the Saatchi Gallery starts 14th July. The course will take place on Saturday afternoons 2 - 4pm, 14th July - 18th August (no session on the 28th July).

The course includes visits to out-of-the-way galleries in the East End, blue chip galleries in the West End, a visit to an artist's studio, and other museums and galleries in London.

Here are some testimonials from my most recent course:

  • 'Ben has a depth of knowledge, lucidity of expression and passion which is contagious and enlightening.' 
  • 'What I liked best of all was the approach to contemporary art by visiting a range of locations; from established museums to tiny galleries in the East End. The visits are both informal and relevant, and a refreshing contrast to the slide show lectures of the past. Ben’s enthusiasm is infectious and his relaxed approach belies an impressive knowledge and understanding of artists’ work past and present.'
  • 'Ben is the perfect guide. [He] has helped me understand, appreciate and look at contemporary art with fresh eyes and appreciation.'
  • 'Ben's style of teaching is friendly, informative and intelligent. He doesn't force a particular critical approach, apart from encouraging open-mindedness, and he values the contributions that members of the group make to discussions about art.'
  • 'The course has allowed me to explore galleries I've been meaning to for ages, with the added value of having someone who is clearly passionate, excited and most importantly, knowledgeable about the art and the spaces.'
  • 'I've found Ben's teaching style to be extremely liberal and encouraging - he's clearly interested in making sure his students are making the most out of what they're looking at, without pushing ideas or opinions. I think the course is well organised, it's relaxed, fun and insightful for anyone walking in to the London art scene with no previous experience of it.'
  • 'I very much enjoyed each session, for its variety and for opening my eyes and mind to the world of contemporary art. I can highly recommend the sessions to anyone.'
  • 'I think Ben Street is AMAZING - my knowledge of art stopped in the 80's and A LOT has happened since. After 7 weeks with Ben, I don't feel daunted by my lack of knowledge. He introduction to contemporary art is painless and I think our group really 'bonded'. I am looking forward to the next course.'
  • 'Greatly enjoyed the many sessions given by Ben Street on getting to understand contemporary art. He is most knowledgeable and is able to tailor the talks for a broad range of people from those who know little and know some of contemporary and modern art. Importantly, he knows the gallery owners and artists and had arranged for them to speak with the group. Especially good was the visit to Peckham Rye and the talk from Michael Petry. I highly recommend Ben's sessions to anyone who wants to know more about contemporary art and its scene in London.'

The cost is £125 per person, excluding travel costs, or £25 per session. Anyone over 18 is welcome to attend. Places will be allotted on a first come, first served basis. For more information and to book your place on the course please contact

Contact me if you need any more information. Please forward to anyone you think might be interested in taking part.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Contemporary Art Trips to Berlin, Venice, Vienna

Here are details of a number of trips I'm going to be leading over summer/autumn 2012: specific dates to be confirmed.

My trips are designed to introduce participants to modern and contemporary art (with occasional diversions into earlier periods) in various European cultural centres, focusing equally on larger institutions and smaller galleries. These trips are designed for independent travellers and do not include accommodation and travel, to allow participants more flexibility.

Please contact me (click 'view my complete profile' on the right) if you're interested in taking part. Specific dates to follow soon.

Forthcoming trips include Rome, Amsterdam, Copenhagen...and beyond.


August - Berlin: Sausages, beer and sunshine (and art)

Neue Nationalgalerie (Mies van der Rohe) for outstanding modern and contemporary art collection
Hamburger Bahnhof - contemporary art space including light works by Anthony McCall
Gabriel Orozco, Mexican conceptualist par excellence at Guggenheim
Kunsthaus Tascheles - artists' studios and small exhibitions
David Chipperfield's astonishing redesign of the Neues Museum
Daniel Liebeskind's Jewish Museum - architecture as emotional experience
Smaller galleries in the city

Likely dates: first week of August (6th - 12th)


September - Venice: Spritz, cichetti and the pleasures of being lost

Punta della Dogana (Tadao Ando) and Palazzo Grassi for Francois Pinault's excellent contemporary collection
Prada Foundation at Ca'Corner - international contemporary art
The greatest small museum of modern art in the world: the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Visits to see staggering masterpieces by Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese and Tiepolo in situ at churches across the city
Hidden Venice: gems of the city that most visitors miss

Likely dates: early September


late September/ early October - Vienna: Wienerschnitzel, sachertorte and the delights of the unheimlich

Cecily Brown and Alex Katz (two generations of great American painting) at the Essl Museum
Marina Abramovic's astonishing performance art at Kunsthalle Wien
Dan Flavin's iconic and beautiful neon minimalism at Museum Moderner Kunst
(all museums packed into the elegant museums quarter)
The incredible art nouveau Secession building (including Klimt murals) to see contemporary artists' site-specific work
The Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of the greatest old master collections in the universe
Smaller galleries across the city

Likely dates: week of 24th Sept/beginning of week of 1st Oct


Saturday, 17 March 2012

Art talks in London: March and April

A summary of talks I'm giving in London during March and April.

Thursday 22nd March (all day): Who's Afraid of Contemporary Art? for Art History UK (Tate Modern/West End galleries).

Tuesday 27th March (1-2pm, free): Making Tracks (themed public tour of the National Gallery).

Friday 30th March (evening): Art Shots: Art and Popular Culture for Art History UK (Tate Modern).

Tuesday 10th April (1-2pm, free): Making and Meaning: Painting Light (themed public tour of the National Gallery).

Friday 13th April (evening): Art Shots: Rembrandt: The Power of Paint for Art History UK (National Gallery).

Friday 20th April (1-2pm, free): Talk and Draw: Caravaggio's Judith and the Head of John the Baptist (National Gallery).

Saturday 21st April (2-6pm): Lucian Freud Portraits for Art History UK (National Portrait Gallery/National Gallery)

Follow me on Twitter (@thebenstreet) for regular updates of free and paid art talks in London over the summer.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

On Hugh Mendes (for Charlie Smith Gallery, London)

Hugh Mendes 'Obituary: Tom Lubbock' Oil on linen 30.5x20cm 2011

HUGH MENDES by Ben Street

In Giovanni Bellini’s 1501 portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, the sitter is compressed behind a stone parapet, his arms invisible to view. Deprived of the agency of limbs, the Doge is pinned in place, reduced to a bureaucratic chess piece. His face, hard lit from the left, is unmistakeably skull-like. His body barely penetrates the shimmering carapace of his damask gown. This is a man filling a recently vacated uniform, carrying out the necessities of his role, before the shadows that creep across his face finally take him. Bellini’s portrait implies the presence of death, and its assiduous realism is a declaration of faith in the afterlife. Portraiture was supposed to capture every crow’s-foot, every furrow, to retain the subject as focal point for posthumous prayer. In the centre of the parapet, Bellini paints a startlingly realistic piece of unfolded paper, called a cartellino, apparently pinned to the wall like a Post-It note, that he uses both as a place of signature and as a kind of assurance that this is really what he saw. The paper in the painting is a kind of confirmation, like a receipt, that an action took place in the world. This man sat here, looking like this. The light fell like this.

Hugh Mendes’ paintings belong to the tradition of Bellini’s painting in several important ways. In his Obituary paintings (2009-2012), a piece of paper, like a solitary cartellino, is centred against a stark white background. A tiny rim of shadow passes along two sides, so the paper is evidently within the fictive space of the painting itself. (The implied space of Mendes’ paintings is starkly forensic, with something of the CSI lab about their blank white backgrounds). Each piece of paper has ostensibly been carefully snipped from its newspaper source (in Mendes’ work, the clippings derive exclusively from The Guardian, after a few years of working with The Independent), and features both text – the name of the deceased – and image – their photograph. Take Mendes’ image of Steve Jobs (2011), for instance. The headshot shows Jobs looking, like Loredan, to our left; and although the wrinkling of Jobs’ face reflects the candour of the original photograph, not the desire for celestial redemption, there is a resonance between the two images that implies a continuity of intention between the two painters. Both Bellini’s and Mendes’ paintings perform a kind of pictorial entomology: the subject is pinned into the space of the image, in order to represent something in an implied larger taxonomy of subjects – doges, CEOs, celebrities.

Yet Mendes’ paintings are really only portraits at a remove. Strictly speaking, they’re portraits treated as still lifes, paintings of photographic images made distant in the retelling. And the photographs themselves have an implicit distance from their subjects: they’re headshots selected for their likeness, or ability to capture the essence of what makes that person worthy of remembrance. A succession of visual choices creates a crowded back-story in any painting by Mendes. Each one bears an important question about an individual’s relationship with the tangible world: is this really Steve Jobs? Or Richard Hamilton? Or Elizabeth Taylor? In Mendes’ work, still life – a genre that celebrates the tangibility of the physical world, the quiddity of things – becomes vexed, unsure of what it’s able to do. Mendes gives still life an identity crisis.

Mendes’ paintings are above all acts of preservation. Each Obituary is pictorial aspic, preventing the yellowing of the printed image through painted reproduction. And since a clipping from a newspaper plays out its own transience as news through physical decay – in other words, is an advertisement for its own impermanence in a way a web page isn’t – Mendes’ paintings represent small moments of transcendence. Mendes’ image of Lucian Freud (2011), for example, depicts a chiaroscuro headshot of the late painter, in perhaps unwitting parallel with Renaissance portraiture. In the artist’s studio, the original clipping fades on the wall, like an inverted Picture of Dorian Gray, while the painting retains the paper’s defiant flatness and crispness. (There is no impending decay in Mendes’ work, as there might be in an image of a basket of fruit: their fields of uninflected white space suggest an extra-temporal situation, a lack of air). As in Wilde’s book, though, the cost of preservation is a form of ghostliness, a sort of inauthenticity. The head on Jeremy Bentham’s embalmed body at University College London had to be replaced with a wax replica; it still looks like him, but it isn’t him (the head is kept in a jar by his feet). Mendes’ paintings enact the strange paradox of posterity: in order for something to stay the same, it must change.

Hugh Mendes’ paintings are images not of people, but of people in the act of being remembered. His work’s re-enactment of memory is there in the tension between precision (the careful transcription of the photographic source) and fuzziness (the lines of text, reduced to just-illegible lines of dark grey). What looks painstakingly precise is continually tempered with a painterliness that stands for uncertainty: the slightly fogged text is like that seen in a dream, a hazy mesh of strips that never quite coalesces into writing. Implied in this approach is a yearning held at bay by an absence of complete knowledge, an attempt to communicate in a language you haven’t quite mastered. In Mendes’ 2011 image of art critic and artist Tom Lubbock, the act of translating the photographed face into paint replicates the intense scrutiny of the one left behind, like a loved picture in a locket, as well as reflecting Lubbock’s own penetrating analysis of paintings in his writing. In this sense, Mendes’ Obituaries are suffused with the hidden presence of the artist himself, gazing, as though remembering, at the image on the studio wall, while it imperceptibly deletes itself before his very eyes. Like Bellini’s painting, Mendes’ image of Lubbock is a testament of something having been seen. The act of seeing creates an immortality, of sorts. This paper was here, looking like this. The light fell like this.

Ben Street, January 2012

Hugh Mendes


Private View
Thursday February 23rd 6.30-8.30pm
Sponsored by Jeremiah Weed Brews

Exhibition Dates
Friday February 24th – Saturday March 31st 2012

Gallery Hours
Wednesday–Saturday 11am–6pm
or by appointment

336 Old St, 2nd Floor, London, EC1V 9DR

+44 (0)20 7739 4055