I made it to London’s East End determined to see as many new (to me, that is) contemporary galleries as possible, and to consider how/why they had displayed the works shown. Here are my highlights –
* LONDON NEWCASTLE PROJECT SPACE – IMAGINE A joint exhibition by students of Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf and UCL Slade School of Fine Art.
[This was still being set up, with no information available about the artists or their works, so my apologies to them, I cannot credit either properly.]
Two pieces dealt with display issues my own work raises. One drawing was actually on A4 tracing paper (as many of my own are), simply hung by two little bulldog clips on the white wall. Up close I could see this was an intriguing life drawing in day glow pink. Sadly, hung ill-lit in a corridor made this single piece far too easy to miss.
Another installation comprised scattered metal blobs on the floor in front of what seemed a sheet of muslin with shapes painted on to it. The sheet was hung from a straight batten, and allowed to gather as it fell to the floor (I am planning for the unused paper from my current big piece to sit rolled below). This was in a prominent spot and well lit, so it might have been eye-catching regardless of the work’s quality. But the way this installation used its gallery space, with good lighting, room for viewers to move round it, and with the sensual pool of fabric where it met the concrete floor really made it striking, whereas the little life drawing was just too hard to see. It is possible that this artist wanted the life drawing to be elusive, but my work is all about perception, so I need it all to be visible.
* RIVINGTON PLACE: Autograph-abp. ROCK AGAINST RACISM/SYD SHELDON and FRANTZ FANON 1925-1961
These two photography exhibitions didn’t sound like they would offer me much food for thought, and I almost kept walking, but I remembered the Rock Against Racism movement when it began in the late 1970s, and couldn’t resist a look; then I found myself considering the Fanon exhibition upstairs.
ROCK AGAINST RACISM/SYD SHELDON – this comprised a collection of Sheldon’s photographs, negatives, proofs and posters made from these images. It should have been a repetitive, and consequently flat experience. However its curator had used the same images in different formats and arrangements which actually forced you to look again with fresh eyes at the people who were their subjects, and somehow this made them feel present and vivid, rather than idiosyncratic figures from a lost past. It was encouraging to see how successful this was.
FRANTZ FANON 1925-1961 – I had heard a little about Fanon as an important thinker and writer concerned with the after-effects of colonialism, and this was an exhibition of photographs by Bruno Boudjelal who had revisited important locations from Fanon’s past in Algeria. I expected it to be very inaccessible – I can’t claim to be knowledgeable or affected directly by the issues that troubled Fanon – but again the curation of these images made a real difference. Like Sheldon’s photos these were monochrome, but unlike his, they were deliberately etherial, often fuzzy and indistinct, and only one was repeated. Whereas Sheldon showed his against bright walls and used vivid coloured backings, these were against a charcoal painted wall, and the repeated image projected onto it. Lighting was subdued. This very effectively conveyed the difficulty of finding reliability in the photographer’s hunt for accuracy about Fanon’s early life. There was nothing vivid or present in the effect these images conveyed. They were elusive and beautiful, and very seductive. The projection even appeared to be suspended before the wall behind it. I thought I’d feel alienated, but actually I wanted to stay longer.
* RAVEN ROW: JOS DE GRUYTER & HARALD THYS: FINE ARTS
I loved this gallery. It was a lovely space to be in. This is a regency fronted house with its back knocked out and a concrete extension added. All walls are white painted. The original doors, floors and panelling have been preserved as far as possible.
These two artists are known for working in video, but this show was chiefly a collection of primitive watercolours with giant steel ‘figures’ dotted about, bearing pencil sketched faces taped casually in place. In this building the paintings seemed a determined imitation of a 19th Century gentleman’s collection. The steel figures appeared rude pastiches of visitors to the show.
The building’s attic space is something completely different. It has been left unaltered since its sitting tenant died, and is visually stuck in the 1970s. Strange stilted videos were showing in its main rooms. These are what these artists are more known for. They featured stiff, inarticulate old-fashioned characters performing mysterious surreal scenes. Seeing them in this building above the rest of the show made me question the activity of looking at art. What do we do when we say something is ‘art’ and look at it?! Are we viewers less real than the ‘art’ because we frame it and elevate it? What does it mean to give an object ‘value’?
I don’t think I’ve ever been to an exhibition that posed these questions so directly, or with such a sense of purpose and fun. The charm and status of this gallery’s lower spaces really did give the paintings a heightened value, when many had titles that plainly declared them jokes, ‘Venus as a Peasant’, for example, or ‘Man Holding His Wife’s Head on His Lap’. The period decor of the attic gave the videos an unmistakeable ‘arthouse’ feel, and yet they were part of the whole exhibition. The whole show was a very exciting use of site and space. I want my work to be shown somehow in a way that poses questions about looking and lookers. This gave me a lot to think about. I found it so interesting that later I looked the artists up online and discovered the show had previously been exhibited at MOMA in New York, a very different building. I can’t help feeling that Raven Row as a site enabled this show to do something new and special.