|Birds Making Nests, 2014|
Bermondsey has – perhaps more than most – seen the cycles of fashion come and go in its time.
In the 17th century, after the Great Fire of London, it became home to the well-to-do.
But within 200 years, it had turned into a notorious slum, home to industries that were deemed too noisy for the City, immigrants and parts of the docks – with areas immortalised in Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
Not just noisy, but smelly too: Bermondsey Street still retains plenty of references to tanning, alongside some surprisingly impressive old buildings.
Yet now the area has come full circle, back to an era of gentrification, and the street itself is part of Bermondsey’s ‘antique mile’, which includes a number of upmarket galleries.
Indeed, Eames Fine Art, where I was headed on Wednesday evening, is so upmarket as to be able to offer works for sale by the likes of Matisse and Picasso.
The Other Half, on hearing this, had a remarkably simple message for me: “Do. Not. Buy. Anything.”
I was going in that direction for a very specific reason: the opening of a new exhibition of works on paper by Anita Klein, an Australian-born painter and printmaker who now lives and works in London and Italy.
|Hot Chocolate With Leila, 2010|
Klein’s work is fascinating: on the surface, a simple, joyous celebration of remarkably ordinary life, but with far more behind it than that.
Much of it is deeply personal in its portrayal of home and the domestic life, from a picture of her watching her partner making bread, to one of her sitting on a sofa with her daughter, both of them nursing large bowls of hot chocolate.
Her women are, if not downright voluptuous, then certainly normal (whatever that means). There are no fantastical supermodels here; no sense of guilt about the body or about simple pleasures.
And in I Paint My Toenails, she uses an exaggerated perspective to show just how darned awkward – and funny – that act can be when you actually have a normal body.
Oh yes, there’s a gentle – and endearingly self-deprecating – humour here too.
Indeed, in he work in general, she celebrates the human body – including her own. It’s wonderfully affirming and positive.
Klein trained at the Slade, and she’s technically superb in a range of mediums.
Texturally, the linocuts are particularly interesting, often creating a decorative background that also gives movement to the works.
|A Cup of Tea, 2014|
And this is particularly successful in Rain (2014), where the technique works on a further level.
Unusually for an exhibition of this sort, there are works dating back to the mid-1980s, which gives us a wonderful – and rare – opportunity to see how much the art of a very-much-alive artist has developed.
There are also signs of an inner life here: for instance, The Birds Wake Me Up, a drypoint etching from 2008, has birds flying above her and partner Nige, who remains sleeping while she wakes.
It’s a beautiful way to convey the impact of the birds. And like her work in general, it has real charm.
Indeed, in various works, she seems to be communicating with a bird or embracing nature via trees.
Many of her more recent works clearly reflect the light and colour of Italy – there’s a vibrance here that matches perfectly with her work.
I noted some time ago that Klein’s style could be said to be cloisonnism, but she explained that what really influences her is the Italian Renaissance, with it’s flat backgrounds and lack of perspective.
What she produces from that is varied and modern, but at the same time, rooting her work in centuries of art.
|Nige Gets in My Bath, 2011|
However, for all its apparent gentleness, there is an ambiguity to Klein’s work that gives it a great deal more sophistication.
In many of the works, she breaks through the fourth wall, with her central character – herself, in effect – casting a glance beyond the canvas: at the viewer; even at the artist herself.
The looks are not quite as directly as Manet’s Olympia, but nonetheless the looks are there – and it was the directness of the gaze that, in part, caused the notoriety of that work and also of the same artist’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
So particularly in a work such as Nige Gets Into My Bath (2001, acrylic on paper), where she is looking over her partner’s shoulder toward us, then for all the domesticity and the humour, it begs a question about the intimacy of the subject and whether we have become a voyeur.
It’s precisely the sort of complexity that rewards looking at – and then looking at again.
Going further: viewing art is part of the creative process – whether the art is musical or literary or theatrical or visual.
|Nest on the balcony, 2013|
Every single person who views a work of art sees it through the prism of their own life; of their own experience; of their own beliefs.
So looking at some of these works, are we also seeing a comment on the invasions of privacy of those who root in bins and hide behind hedges with long lenses in order to pimp the lives of others?
But whatever you see – or however you interpret it – far from being simplistic, Klein’s co-opting of us into her realm offers us the opportunity to ask philosophically both about the power of the human gaze, and our relationship with the art that we look on.
If you’re in London, this is well worth a visit – and take the time to go around this small gallery at least twice.
Oh – and the area’s well worth a look too.
Anita Klein: works on paper, is at Eames Fine Art until 31 August.