Out of the shadows

What links pottery, painting and photography? Light, dark and structure, of course - and two new exhibitions.
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Caravaggio has a lot to answer for. Although he made strong chiaroscuro his trademark in the 16th century, the appeal of starkly contrasting light and shadow still fascinates artists. "Monochrome" and "Chairs And Shadows" are two London exhibitions that testify to this. Unusually, "Monochrome", at The Air Gallery, juxtaposes the fashionably minimalist black-and-white pots of established ceramicist Vivienne Foley and up-and-coming photographer Chris Tubbs' black-and-white portraits of designers. More conventionally, "Chairs And Shadows", at The Fine Art Society, pairs the photographs of chairs by the late Margaret Macdonald and watercolours of Eileen Hogan, both of whose work explores the interplay of light and shadow to dreamlike effect.

Caravaggio has a lot to answer for. Although he made strong chiaroscuro his trademark in the 16th century, the appeal of starkly contrasting light and shadow still fascinates artists. "Monochrome" and "Chairs And Shadows" are two London exhibitions that testify to this. Unusually, "Monochrome", at The Air Gallery, juxtaposes the fashionably minimalist black-and-white pots of established ceramicist Vivienne Foley and up-and-coming photographer Chris Tubbs' black-and-white portraits of designers. More conventionally, "Chairs And Shadows", at The Fine Art Society, pairs the photographs of chairs by the late Margaret Macdonald and watercolours of Eileen Hogan, both of whose work explores the interplay of light and shadow to dreamlike effect.

"Monochrome" is the more eccentric, thought-provoking show. The combination of Foley's pots and Tubbs' photographs seems arbitrary - bar their shared love of black and white. But the show is in fact the result of a meeting of minds. Tubbs was once commissioned to photograph Foley's work, and the two realised they both "had a very classical training". "Chris's photography inspired me to visualise my pots in groups rather than in isolation," explains Foley.

In turn, Tubbs, 27, was fascinated that the older Foley wasn't immersed in the trendy London design scene yet produced work that, inadvertently, was the height of chic. For years, Foley, who trained at the John Cass School of Art in the Sixties, made craftsy pottery, but relatively recently, inspired by the understated forms of 12th-century Chinese ceramics, began to make streamlined pots. "She's so removed from the so-called cool London culture yet she's making this very contemporary-looking stuff," says Tubbs.

Tubbs himself lives and breathes hip design. Inspired by the uncluttered, graphic compositions of Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and David Bailey's Sixties work, he began photographing today's heroes of modern design in 1997: the likes of Michael Marriott, Matthew Hilton, Michael Sodeau, Nigel Coates and John Rocha. "At the time, before today's huge design boom, they weren't well-known," he says.

Tubbs' arty upbringing drew him to photography. His mother has a gallery in the South of France where she's shown the work of Cecil Beaton and Andre Villers. Tubbs trained briefly with Villers, studied at the London College of Printing, and now shoots regularly for Elle Decoration and The Independent on Sunday's "Reality" magazine. His photos are, as he puts it, "classical". There's no technological tricksiness here, just the low-tech, time-honoured technique of cropping, exploited to idiosyncratic effect. He sometimes lops off a subject's chin while retaining great expanses of blank wall behind, so giving foreground and bland background equal weight to give his portraits an informal look. Yet he says his philosophy is totally unlike the "quick-snap vibe, throwaway approach of Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans".

Curiously, and this is my one reservation, Tubbs' pantheon of portraits is male-dominated. Where are today's female design giants - Jane Atfield, Tomoko Azumi, Rosario Hurtado of El Ultimo Grito, to name a few?

Foley's work is equally painstaking, though chance plays a bigger part. Made of porcelain - which is notorious for its high shrinkage rate and so difficult to control - her pots are the result of trial and error. Her most recent asymmetric vases with elongated necks that crane like a young bird straining to be fed present the biggest challenge. Precarious but graceful, they're made of several handthrown sections later joined together at "leatherhard" stage (when the clay is hard enough to handle without distorting it, but can be dampened to fuse sections together).

Increasingly experimental, Foley's pots, which are stocked at hip London design shop Bowow and are popular in the US (the Clintons own one), often have gaping rims, reinforcing the impression of a ravenous fledgling. Despite the fragility of her work, Foley's attitude is down-to-earth: "I like it to be functional. People say they don't want to put flowers in my pots, but I'm happy to. Most of them will hold water."

Painter Eileen Hogan has had an equally extensive career. She studied at Camberwell College of Art in the Sixties under Frank Auerbach and Ron Kitaj, and is now the college's Dean. She paints the shadows cast by the beams of tavernas in Greece, as well as trees and fences in Tooting Common, where she lived as a student. Her work, in acrylics and oils, has a nostalgic, bittersweet feel. Take her sepia-toned watercolour of an abandoned chair on an empty sunny verandah streaked with moody shadows, evocative of idyllic but now distant summer holidays.

Margaret Macdonald's pictures of empty chairs have a similarly retrospective, melancholy feel. Shot in grainy, impressionistic black and white, her aesthetic is studiedly archaic, recalling Victorian daguerreotypes. The contrasting shadows and light are marked but there's a visceral quality to them: at their edges, Macdonald's pools of light have a blurry, liquid, dreamlike quality.

Macdonald's show is a tribute to her long, illustrious career before her death last year. She was a well-known architect and interior designer, and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and was married to Sir Hugh Casson. In her seventies, this indefatigable livewire took up photography, remarking, "The design bug doesn't understand retirement."

'Monochrome' is at The Air Gallery, 32 Dover Street, London W1 (020-7409 1544), from 3-9 September. 'Chairs And Shadows' is at The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1 (020-7629 5116) from September 11 to October 6.

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