Does art have to be serious? Beastly Hall, an Artwise-curated exhibition of 26 of the most famous contemporary artists and their animal-inspired works, would argue not. This exhibition, held in the historic Hall Place, Bexley, invites you mostly to enjoy art’s playful side, as well as presenting a few creepier, gory exhibits inspired by the theme of animals, real and imaginary.
Pieces dotted throughout this Tudor dwelling — which itself nestles among 65 acres and a whooshing motorway — come from a roll call of top artists including Damien Hirst, Polly Morgan and Tessa Farmer, Mat Collishaw, Claire Morgan and Dorothy Cross.
Sculptures have a sense of the playful, harnessing the wild animal’s power to subvert and potentially cause mayhem. Ancient and wealthy titled heads peer ridiculously from their gilt frames in the National Portrait Gallery as a fox slinks past in video piece, the Nightwatch. It’s a hypnotic enchantment, the clash of fox in the present and paintings of the past. Others invite you to laugh openly, such as Nina Saunders’ Fox With Issues, in which said vulpine is propped up on the psychoanalyst’s couch, beady eyes agog and mouth open, a ferocious patient. Olympic Chickens show grotesquely flabby carcasses competing at javelin and swimming.
The exhibits get even darker: Laura Ford’s Beatrix Potter figures are reimagined as scavenging tramps rooting through bins, and Claire Morgan’s suspended sculpture of flies almost tempts a perverse desire to run through the thing, getting covered in insects. Horror has the power to fascinate, car crash style.
In a nutshell, a charismatic exhibition that aims to amuse, startle and unsettle. Watch out for the cuddly characters on the Hall Lawn as you enter – the Queen’s Beasts were created to celebrate Queen Liz’s coronation all those years ago. But their funny faces are far less forbidding than that sounds. It is just right, though, that they are the sentries to this exhibition whose key is laughter, rather than art posturing and pondering.
Beastly Hall: A place where artists and creatures collide is at Hall Place & Gardens, Bexley until 1 September. Tickets: £7. Londonist saw this exhibition on a complimentary review ticket.