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Pens and Needles: an unusual exhibition in an unconventional galleryLatest News ->

Wed 02 Mar, 2011.

Strange sounds emitted from the building, as if a sequence depicting an alien planet from the soundtrack of a science-fiction film were being piped into the London night. The venue was London Miles Gallery in Notting Hill, and the alien noises, although very atmospheric and suited to an avant-garde gallery in a general sense, were not entirely in keeping with the theme of the exhibition that was in the full swing of its opening event.

Then the source of those sibilant sounds – the ethereal sighing, soft hissing and whooshing punctuated with metallic highlights – became clear: it wasn’t the office building that housed London Miles, but the traffic speeding along the elevated A4 under which the building was constructed, its concrete roof almost a part of the busy arterial road’s supporting structure. So no, it was not quite the soundtrack for an extraterrestrial world, but more of a soundscape for J.G. Ballard’s Crash, which not only complemented the gallery’s persona, but somehow did suit the mood of the event therein.

That event was the opening night of Pens and Needles, a celebration and exploration of tattoo art and culture and its intersection with fine art. The exhibition is an innovative approach to both art forms that is enjoying increasing validity, and there would be few galleries more suited to showcase this juxtaposition and convergence than London Miles, which prides itself as “an unconventional gallery space” (occupying the courtyard of the building, office and studio windows looking into the courtyard/gallery from two levels, London Miles is a gallery effectively without walls).

An enormous diversity of art has been brought together for Pens and Needles, and as tends to be the case with highly diverse group shows, response to the artists and their work can be mixed. In our case, there were a number of individual works that stood out, rather than entire bodies of work from specific artists, with the exception of the moody seven-piece portraiture series presented by Brussels-based French photographer Olli Bery.

There is a documentary aspect to Bery’s work, as the subjects of the photographs are tattooed individuals, tattoo artists, tattoo artists in action, and one evocative scene from a tattoo studio shot from a mirror image. Of all the art on display at this exhibition, this series by Bery does the most to portray the mystique of tattooing. The seven untitled pieces are, like all his work, shot in black-and-white, and are appropriate ambassadors for his dark, brooding technique and vision.

Olli Bery Olli Bery Olli Bery

Following Bery with a smaller (both in number and in physical dimension) body of work that we found appealing was the series of four graphic works by the French tattoo artist, Lea Nahon, who is also based in Brussels and was the subject of one of Bery’s portrait pieces (see the image on the right, above). Her four ink-on-paper pieces – one also supplemented with coffee as a medium and another with watercolour – follow closely in the sketching style of her distinctive tattoo art. Two of the pieces were in the realm of studies after Gustav Klimt, but the one we found most intriguing was untitled – an anguished bust removing her own heart from her breast, the left side of the neck, shoulder and torso a grid pattern.

Lea Nahon Lea Nahon Lea Nahon

Another favourite was Love It (oil on canvas), by Scottish artist Michael Forbes, which showcased his characteristic style, humour and commentary: “Will it hurt?”, a cat-headed woman asks a dog-headed tattoo artist about to set to work on her, to which he answers “Oh yes!! But you will learn to love it”.

Horikitsune is the Japanese tattoo master’s name of German artist Alex Reinke, but it was a collage-style piece in his role as a Western artist that appeared in the exhibition, The Immovable One (mixed media on paper). We mention this work for its range of sociopolitical and even economic comment, including: a skull wearing a police riot helmet with “G20” scrawled on it; “CCTV-SPY” written on a box; an M16 atop a TV set that has a sticker “CONSUME” on it, and the slogan “Lies: politics, democrats, socialists, Vatican, every ruler” lighting up its screen; and dollar, pound, yen and euro symbols next to a plummeting graph.

Internationally known British tattoo artist Alex Binnie is represented by a series of four wood cut portraits, hand printed by the artist on Japanese paper. The subjects of the prints reflect, and the style of the artist is reminiscent of, tribal forms of tattoo art, which is one of the forms of tattooing for which Binnie is famous. Binnie is beginning to be recognised as a printmaking artist: he had a wood cut print accepted for the 2010 Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition.

We also liked the following work: the dark portrait shot of tattooed circus sideshow performer and cabaret artist, Missy Macabre in what looks like a bathtub, by award-winning London-based photographer Al Overdrive; Gabby (oil on distressed panel) by American artist William Zdan; and Hope, one of four limited edition prints of the tattoo-style art by British artist Kerry Evans.

Pens and Needles also presented live tattooing, ongoing throughout the evening, by Jolie Rouge Tattoo studio, London, in the gallery’s own pop-up tattoo parlour. There was even a spot of live music by a singer-guitarist.

London Miles estimates more than 400 people attended the opening night, and there was certainly a bustling crowd, a buzz in the air, a clear interest in the artwork, and the bar–restaurant running along one side of the courtyard was doing a roaring trade. Many of the attendees were living, walking exhibits of tattoo art, which added an extra dimension to the exhibition, giving it even greater relevance by literally bringing it to life on the floor of the gallery over and above the presence of live tattooing.

In our pre-opening Latest News item on the exhibition, we made this comment:

Pens and Needles aims to pay broad tribute to the entire culture surrounding tattooing. We at SomethingDark regard this as a goal that will be as difficult to achieve as it is noble, and we are looking forward to viewing the result.

It was indeed a tall hurdle that London Miles curator Tina Ziegler set herself to clear, and in this respect the exhibition does have its limitations. However, in the context of a small, independent gallery whose remit includes “exhibiting, nurturing, and unearthing artists working within the realms of surrealist, pop, lowbrow, comic book, and illustration art”, Pens and Needles is a success, and anyone with any interest whatsoever in the subject matter of the exhibition should find themselves rewarded for making the effort to see it.

Pens and Needles will be on show until 7 March; the exhibition catalogue can be viewed online, and full gallery details are on the London Miles Gallery website. Contact the gallery to arrange a personal tour of the show.

For readers interested in viewing more work from our two favourites from the exhibition, please visit the websites of Olli Bery and Lea Nahon.

Text copyright © SomethingDark 2011. Images copyright © Olli Bery, Lea Nahon 2011. All rights reserved.