BEAR WITNESS to this extraordinary collection. The accumulative endeavours of an art world journeyman, it is testament to a life lived in pursuit of art and objects, from the hallowed galleries of Soho and Chelsea to the antique markets of Bermondsey and Portobello. Equipped with a restless eye, an irrepressible curiosity and a kleptomaniacal thirst for acquisition, this peripatetic collector has accrued art works and objects of every tier and type, across a half century in the circus of the global zeitgeist. Spirited and sombre, sacred and profane, this collection exudes palpable temptation; consumed by the collector’s impulse to covet and to own, we are compelled by the slogan emblazoned across Ed Ruscha’s canvas:
I CAN’T NOT DO THAT.
Viewed holistically, it is an encyclopaedic collection of contemporary art from the 1960s until the present day; these visually impactful works of art live cheek by jowl with Bears and Skulls of every kind, incredibly diverse and entirely eclectic in style, provenance, genre, and content. Take a stroll from pre-history to the new millennium; from the fairground to the graveyard; from Eastern mysticism to Vegas-style plastic fantastic; from Tiffany to Coca-cola and from Jake and Dinos Chapman to Shakespeare. Bear Witness to a collection that will lead you from Warhol to walking sticks, and from Albers to arcade games, with every iteration of item between. When else will you see Sotheby’s selling a Rothko alongside a can of Coke?
There is an acute sense of tension, even collision at play: between bears and skulls, life and death, fur and bone, blood and dust. BEAR WITNESS is a modern day wunderkammer; a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, a carnival of life, the greatest show on earth that perfectly reflects the spirit and compulsions of a contemporary patron. For the collector these skulls and bears served as prisms, through which to examine visual cultures spanning from ancient to modern, and heralding from every continent on the globe. Ostensibly uniform subjects, each discrete Bear and Skull offers a window into another time and another world, another craftsman and another patron. Okimono ivory is matched with Japanese photography and Korean sculpture. Native American artefacts provide a tribal cantilever to the silkscreened cool of New York Pop. Biker chains hang with Edwardian pendants, and cuddly teddies nuzzle in an iron bear muzzle. Across fifty years of acquisition, beer mugs and book-ends were collected with the same vim and vigour as the heavyweights of Post-War and Contemporary art: Rothko, Warhol, Fontana, Richter, Hirst and Cattelan.
If skulls are omnipresent in the collection, the themes of death and mortality are best understood through the lens of the Young British Artists on show. Damien Hirst’s butterfly painting is glossy with saturated pink, and littered with perfectly formed butterfly corpses. While death is inherent to its execution, it retains a sense of beauty, even fun. Jake and Dinos Chapman glorify in the gory and relish the taboo, and Michael Craig-Martin renders a skeleton and sickle in flat graphic colour, as if creating a logo for mortality.
If the skulls deal with death, then the bears tackle the carnal facts of life. Systematically accrued since 1976, the ceramics and silverware reach an aesthetic extreme in the works of Paola Pivi and Bertozzi e Casoni. The creature is a fitting emblem: resolutely animal in nature, quick to fuck and quick to kill. The bear is exotic, a horrific beast from far flung forests that is perfectly suited to a starring role in the modern day Wunderkammer. As Paola Pivi says, “The spirit of the bear is a very huge thing - if you have ever met a bear, you know he has a strong personality”. Nowhere is that more evident than in this collection. From deep within the rhythmic recurrence of the bear and skull motifs, and throughout the vibrant installations of contemporary art, there emerges a single portrait: that of the curious patron, wandering like a free-spirited bear, compelled to collect.