Stephen Lawrence Gallery

 Review of Hidden in Plain Site

Stephen Lawrence Gallery, 5th March-2nd April 2022

Dr Craig Jordan-Baker

In Mapping the Invisible Landscape, Kent Ryden claims that, ‘[w]e sense we are reaching the edge of our world when we run out of stories to tell about the places we see’. By this logic, telling stories about place is not simply a sign of belonging, but stories can also be the tools with which we claim or reclaim ‘our world’. The multimedia Hidden in Plain Site at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery is, collectively, an attempt at such (re)claiming.

In one way, the title Hidden in Plain Site is a nod to our interpretative engagement with art itself. Interpretation is ‘hidden’, for as viewers we do not simply see (hear, touch, smell) art, but synthesise a meaning which often goes beyond the art object’s physical presence, even as it remains in plain sight. Indeed, without this possibility, iconography, symbol or homage would be impossible.

Though in a more pressing way, this exhibition is about the multiple ways we come to notice the unnoticed: Sometimes, by bearing witness or breaking silence, but also by pointing to the gaps, the absences, which remain unfilled. The work in Hidden in Plain Site covers and blends this spectrum.

Litza Jansz wonderfully wry ‘The Elephant is the Room’ offers fridge doors and an elephant-shaped canvas space where we are invited to create our own interpersonal narrative with a set of inkish cut-outs holding a variety of quotidian poses. These domestic scenes, infinitely re-arrangeable, speak to the endless repetition of domestic space and our interactions in domestic space. Indeed, even in variation, the domestic is repeated endlessly. There’s also a palpable suggestion that the domestic space, however configured, is a space of suppression, where what is said is as important as what goes left unsaid (the elephant). Jansz’ other contribution, ‘Tide’, is a playful and poignant film work projected onto sand. This allows both projected image and projection surface to communicate and we are mesmerically drawn into a dialogue between the impermanence of the tide and attempts to draw ourselves on its ever-shifting surface.

In ‘We Are Moving’, Jansz teams up with Esther Neslen and Walthamstow residents to create an animated image of a community in flux. Here, the potential for optimism in the frenetic movement of diverse people gives way to a gridiron structure, reminiscent both of planned American cities and a hollowing out of community spaces for reasons we are all too familiar with.

Veronica Slater’s series of paintings ‘thisHOUSE?’ offers a different kind of narrative structure, but maintains many of the exhibition’s broader themes. Each work features a version of a bay-windowed house – sometimes pointillistically outlined, sometimes impasto-smeared, but always afloat in a patterned sea of wallpaper. While colour and line vary, reflecting the vagueness of memory in a bare sketch or visceral emotion in gory crimson, on every canvas interior and exterior collide. This series is a recognition of the need to externalise our interiorities in order to understand them, arguably one of the primal functions of art.

John Smith’s film work ‘Blight’ relates to the destruction of homes as a result of the construction of the M11. With a soundtrack by Jocelyn Pook reminiscent of Glass’ Koyannisqatsi and Steve Reich’s early tape work, ear and eye infuse to offer a testament to communities and memories demolished in the name of progress. In a powerful early image, the road system around London is cast as a web, made all the more ironic as former residents recall dealing with spiders in their now-demolished homes.

Black Tower, an earlier work, is a Kafkaesque tale of the mental decline of a man who constantly sees a black tower on the horizon and locks himself away in order to avoid its ominous presence. Mandy Eugeniou’s Black Tower provides a too-real homage to Smith’s original, freighted with the technology of the 21st Century and the spectre of the tragic Grenfell Tower. Using crowd-sourced aftermath imagery and accompanied spoken word, Eugeniou’s response flags that if anything, the sense of oppression from surveillance (real or perceived) and the accompanying anxiety, may be worse today.

Dr Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s work uses items such as garishly coloured ice-cream spoons and eye-splittingly tinselled cones to create a world (such as with ‘Cornets and Screwballs Go Vegas’) where disposability and immediacy hide more personal refences to family and heritage. These are reflected in the iconography of bindis and sauwastikas and also in Dr Burman’s family background in the ice cream business. This is shown again in her ‘Spooning’ series, which puns on the intimacy/disposability tensions that characterise her work here

While the interpretive flexibility inherent in art can lead to the shoehorning of heterogenous work into a small thematic box, Hidden in Plain Site offers a credible prism through which to view and unify diverse work. Sometimes the hardest things to see are the things that were there all along, though crucially, it is not enough to simply know this. What we need is to be shown, and Hidden in Plain Site does just this, by telling new stories about spaces, both inside and out.

Dr Craig Jordan-Baker

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