This group show with a rather grandiose title has been curated by a Turner-shortlisted male artist who goes by the name of Bob and Roberta Smith. Smith has been artist-in-residence at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, combing through a remarkable archive of the works and personal effects of Jacob Epstein, which were bequeathed to the city by Epstein's widow in 1973.
Epstein's singlemindedness as a maker had catastrophic consequences. His beloved daughter Esther and his mentally unstable son Theo died within weeks of each other in 1954. Esther took her own life. In a nearby cabinet, which displays letters and newspaper cuttings, we read of Epstein's dysfunctional family – the fact that he was reluctant to acknowledge his three children because of their illegitimacy. There is rage, despair, confusion – Theo scribbles over his own books, and dies as he is being restrained en route to a psychiatric hospital. Epstein's last paintings, of an old forge in semi-darkness, are gloomy, fervent, heavily textured with brown and black bars of paint. This exhibition is a collective reflection upon the dark complications of the human mechanism.
There is a work here by Louise Bourgeois called Cell (Eyes and Mirrors). It is a huge metal cage that encloses mirrors and giant marbles, and reeks of loneliness, paranoia, hatred and suspicion. Tracey Emin, photographed naked from behind, squats in a corner of a shed. Across the room a drawing by Van Gogh almost replicates that same pose – a hunched naked girl, in profile, hides her head in her hands.
The show is feverish, ever on the move, a strange mixture of exuberance and joylessness. What finally makes it less strong than it might have been is the presence of the works by Smith himself, which have a relentlessly childish quality.
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