Brixton East

Review written by Paul Luckraft

On the walk from Brixton train station to visit Bad Behaviour, past clothes stalls, car mechanics and food wholesalers which operate underneath the arches – including the wonderfully named ‘Just Yams etc.’ – I wondered how this group exhibition was going to position itself. Would it attempt to engage with the context of Brixton, its independent spirit and history of rebellion and rioting – or was the ‘bad behaviour’ of the title indicative of more general provocative gestures. What I actually found was an engaging, diverse but somewhat polite exhibition, full of interesting works but lacking a clear unifying attitude. This is perhaps due to the fact that the majority of the artists met at a residency in summer 2012, and the exhibition that has emerged from this feels like a survey of a range of approaches rather than a tightly curated affair.

The exhibition is presented in Brixton East, a generously-sized two storey Victorian building that was formerly a furniture factory. This attractive space is lit by large windows, has a high ceilinged upper space, and possesses a warm, dare I say cosy feel, complete with the smell of sawdust. It’s also a domestic space – a collection of distinctive pieces of salvaged furniture are dotted around, and a wooden staircase leading up to a mezzanine which links to the living quarters of the owner. It’s not at all in keeping with the harsh coldness of concrete-floored industrial units, warehouse spaces and car parks that are the more usual the venues for this type of show in South East London. The press release emphasises that the exhibition and environment is intended to be welcoming and non-elitist. It certainly achieves that, and it will be interesting to see how this space is used in the future and how it might develop into a focus for cultural activity in the area.

Although the exhibition presented a wide range of artistic approaches there were unifying threads linking across the show. One of these is the notion of memorials ­– to people that have been lost, or things that are now obsolete.

Araba Ocran has a large number of works on view, the majority being casts in concrete of outmoded pieces of technology or objects from childhood. These include chunky cell phones, VHS tapes or cheap film cameras. Presented often with crumbling materiality, dissolving into sand and dust, they were dispersed throughout the show, making use of hidden spots such as inside glass fronted display cabinets, or tucked upstairs on the Mezzanine. Most successful is the piece ‘King Hopper’ (2011), a sculpture of an oversize space hopper, with a painted-on face in subtle blue ink, and sitting on a bed of delicate pink sand. It’s visually engaging and holds its own in the space as a singular form – mischievous but melancholy. The work of Brian Griffiths, who Ocran studied under at Camberwell College, certainly seems to be a reference point here.

Upstairs Ocran also presents a ‘Ghost Bike’ – the white-painted cycles that mark the spot where cyclists have been killed that have become prevalent on the streets of numerous international cities since first appearing in the US in 2003. In the same vicinity Ocran presents a wall of black and white portrait photos, the size and format of LP covers and mounted in glass clip frames used to display cherished vinyl in the home. These images are also projected as a slide show on a screen placed above head height, and there is an ornamental pop tune playing in the background too, with the wall labels mentioning Baroque portraits as an inspiration. It’s not clear whether Ocran intends the ‘Ghost Bike’ piece and the portraits to have a relation. The photos could be seen as portraits of victims of traffic accidents, except they don’t look to be cyclists, more a cast of larger-than-life characters drawn from the local Brixton area.

Paul Stanley’s two works on display are highly personal and autobiographical, centring around memories linked to his own family. Past Tense (2012) comprises three small frames, with the middle one containing a 35mm slide subtly backlit by an embedded light. The frames on the left and the right of this contain photographs of the artist as a young child with his mother and father, presented alongside short texts. These texts, written by Stanley, are succinct and moving. They universalise emotional memories of childhood, and carry just enough information without revealing too much. In the upstairs space Stanley shows a projected slide show of further photos, these being found by the artist under his mother’s bed after her death. Simply projected onto a low white screen, the images are shown deliberately blurred, adding a Richter-esque separation. This blurring works to give the viewer permission to look at the images, without the sense of encroachment on something too personal to be shared.

Decorative objects from different cultures form the basis of the small sculptural pieces by Mars Gomes. With titles such as ‘This is Modern art’, ‘Manacage’, ‘Shaping Ghosts’ (all 2011-12) these pieces are existing craft objects, such as carved wooden fertility figures from Ghana, adapted and mutated by the artist. Gomes has added pencils thrust into mouths and eye sockets, and grafted contrasting heads onto bodies. They are highly intriguing works. In one reading they could be yet another critique of the early modernists indebtedness to African masks and carvings, and that era’s cultural reverence for the ‘primitive’ or exotic in non-Western cultures. But they also hint at childhood toys and voodoo dolls – as if Gomes wants to mess around with the original forms whilst being fascinated by their mystique.

Relics of childhood also appear in David Chalkley’s work, but his material is resolutely appropriated and mass-produced. Artist Smurf 65 (2012) is a handmade ash wood case with a glass back and front in which sit 65 small plastic ‘artist character’ smurfs, complete with paintbrush and pallet. They are lined up on five shelves, arranged from top left to bottom right of the case in a sequence of ‘mint condition’ to downright grubby and disfigured. The accompanying label mentions all the models were from identical moulds and have been purchased from different ebay sellers.

Using a familiar pop culture franchise as a motif, Chalkley opens up thoughts around the way mass produced objects of no real function pass through the world, and can be brought together again, sealed inside a case and turned into a collection, an archive. One imagines all the varied journeys the models have gone through before they were re-united in this line up of little blue artistic stereotypes. The cultish nature of the Smurfs amongst the current generation of 30-somethings, and the pristine nature of the cabinet, got me thinking of a slightly nerdy bachelor pad, possibly surrounded by other collectable toys such as Star Wars or Comic book figures. But alongside the retro paean to childhood, and the hint of the thrill of the chase of collecting on ebay, I also detected a more sardonic dig, perhaps aimed at the identikit nature of artists, especially in a place like London with its numerous art schools and the influx of those seeking a career in the creative industry.

Ventiko is a New York-based photographer and in contrast to the other photographs in the show, which are documentary records in some way, her work is fundamentally about artifice and stylistic play with conventions of visual language. She creates elaborate tableaus that are based on the compositions of Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings, erotic Japanese Shunga art and the symbolism of Northern European Still Life. Missit Me Dominus (2012) features the artist in several costumes, a pregnant model, and an abundance of sealife – all glistening gills, glassy eyes and languorous tentacles. Another work, Judith, takes as its model the Artemisia Gentileschi Baroque Renaissance painting Judith Beheading Holofernes (1611-12). Staged with all-female protagonists, the violence of the original paintings is evoked, and made urgent, sexual and troubling. The accompanying label states that the artist’s mother’s battle with breast cancer was a catalyst for the work – indicating that the artist isn’t preoccupied purely with appropriation and identity politics, but is instead seeking a more complex layering of the personal with religious and historical narratives and myths.

Caro Halford’s sculptural installations display an interest in the material oddness of things. She combines forms, surfaces and textures into deft and humorous arrangements –compositions that also act as props and backdrops for dance pieces. Unfortunately I missed the performances that formed part of this presentation, a collaboration with dance artist Claudia Palazzo, but the installations are fascinating in their own right. On a table in the upstairs space sit three forms cast in clay – cartoonish and biomorphic they look like lamps or oversize bowling pins. Wrapped in cellophane bows they are reminiscent of a Thornton’s Easter egg window display gone awry. Downstairs is a work called ‘Curtain Call’ (2011) in which a section of a scaffold tower supports hanging strips of blue cellophane and blue velvet, falling into a lighter-coloured blue plastic sack. Daylight coming through the plastic casts beautiful ultramarine bands colour around the lower gallery. The potential for movement and the accidental seems to run through the pieces.

Upstairs hang a large pair of delicate stitched hanging ‘ladders’ by Ute Essig constructed out of hessian thread. Although well-crafted, the sculptures suffer from the surrounding environment. Suspended from the high-beamed timber ceiling and falling to the aged wooded floor, and surrounded by collections of objects such as sieves, funnels and scythes belonging to the owner of the building, the ladders lacked their own space to breathe.

Downstairs Essig presents a small stitched framed piece with repeated overlapping of the word ‘FAKE’, with loose threads hanging down to create a knotted tangle. I found this more modest scaled piece much more interesting.

Also engaged in a formal play is Charley Peters, whose abstract drawings employ delicate lines, coloured tape and graphite. The drawings have a real elegance, particularly the smaller line based pieces that appear as if they could be woodblock prints or etchings. The larger tape piece in grey, black and white stripes which emanate out from the centre of the board in a sunburst affect is displayed propped against a wall, with a green light giving an artificial toxic glow behind it. This piece in particular has echoes of Jim Lambie’s psychedelic, optically dizzying installations. Another larger framed drawing in graphite suggests TV white noise or a night-time snowstorm. Here subtle lines, perhaps creases or folds, add a tension to the ‘all-over’ composition.

A lack of tension is perhaps the main shortcoming of ‘Bad Behaviour’. The title hints at some form of transgression, but that isn’t really to be found in this show, despite a small smattering of sex. But to demand curatorial rigour perhaps misses the main intension of this self-organised temporary project, which seems to be to present strong individual works by young and emerging artists in an unusual location slightly off the normal art trail, and to deliberately and consciously welcome the local community to the party.

Paul Luckraft is a curator at Modern Art Oxford