Julian Opie’s LED sculpture Curly Hair bought by Pitzhanger Manor

Image: Julian Opie’s sculpture Curly Hair

Walking into the Pitzhanger Manor Gallery

Guest blog by Robert Eagle

A mysterious chap called ‘Curly Hair’ has been striding towards the entrance of the Pitzhanger gallery in Ealing for almost three years – but has never managed to get through the door. And it now looks as if he is going to continue doing the very same thing for ever and a day. With very little hope of ever reaching his apparent destination.  But does he care?

Old Curly Hair is certainly a bit of an enigma. He’s a piece of digital art, a two-dimensional LED display, an array of light-emitting diodes, standing two metres tall and made to mimic the movements of a man walking at a brisk pace from nowhere to nowhere.

I’m a great fan of contemporary electronic art and would love to see more of it outside art galleries everywhere. And there are citizens of Ealing and art-funding organisations who clearly agree because they have raised money and persuaded the artist who made him to sell him to the Pitzhanger for no more than it cost him to make him.

The artist in question is called Julian Opie, who, judging by his portrait, is curly haired himself.

Julian Opie self-portrait, Lisson Gallery

Opie is a leading light of the New British Sculpture Movement, a fashionable bunch of mostly blokes who work seriously hard at taking nothing too seriously. Others in the group you may have heard of include Anthony Gormley, who made the Angel of the North; Barry Flanagan, who does sculptures of flying hares; and Rachel Whiteread who creates inside-out houses.

Mr Opie loaned Old Curly (or New Curly as he then was) to the Pitzhanger in 2021 for an exhibition of his own work, and the sculpture has stayed there ever since. Curly is an eye-catching and amusing item to have standing outside your entrance, and since he qualifies as art (rather than just another flashing neon sign), it obviously made sense for the Pitzhanger to stump up the funds and make an Honest Curly of him.

While the fundraisers toast their success, it may be worth sparing a thought for what the original owner of Pitzhanger Manor might have thought of this contemporary art installation.

Sir John Soane was a leading art and classical antiquities collector, architect of the Bank of England, pioneer of the Neo-Classical style of architecture and owner of another fine house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields that is now one of the most delightful (and free!) period museums in London. What would such an admirer of classical Greek and Roman sculpture have made of this two-dimensional electronic logo heading with such vacuous determination towards his former front door?

The Pitzhanger doesn’t try to conceal the fact that Soane was a rather Marmite character.  Quotations posted on the gallery walls state that while he was “architect, artist, man of science, lover of his profession and benefactor” he was also said to be “irritable, impetuous and intractable – mad in his own way”.  These contradictions could of course mean that he was a brilliant bloke who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Whatever, Pitzhanger’s current management thinks Sir John would have been delighted by Curly Hair; their press release says:

Just as Sir John Soane used Pitzhanger to display his collection of classical art and sculpture alongside contemporary works by leading artists of his day such as JMW Turner and William Hogarth, so Curly Hair is testament to the ongoing dialogue between contemporary and historical art at Pitzhanger today.”

When I see the words “ongoing” and dialogue” juxtaposed in an art blurb I tend to go into catatonic spasm. But this time I think they are right. Just as Soane would have regarded the classical sculptures and moulds he brought back from Italy as true witnesses of a past age, I think he would have seen this getting-nowhere-quickly digital Curly as a true witness of ours.

Image: Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery, Ealing

Pitzhanger is worth a visit for the building alone, and if you only want to see Curly Hair standing outside, it won’t cost you a penny. But there are currently five other exhibitions inside the house, one of which, titled Chinwag, features some very engaging sort-of-humanoid sculptures by Alice Irwin, which complement Curly Hair rather well.

READ ALSO: Two new art exhibitions for spring 2024 at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing

Robert Eagle is an art dealer who lives and works in Chiswick.


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