Trained as a painter in the 1950s, Keith Arnatt gained recognition as a conceptual artist in the late 1960s. Like other conceptual artists Arnatt's work was self reflexive and self-critiquing and sought to free itself from the colonising effect of the gallery system by replacing product with process, object with idea. Arnatt's most famous pieces from this period include a self-burial, in which the artist sequentially descends into the earth, and a text and photo piece in which Arnatt ironically claims to be ‘A Real Artist'. In the 1970s Arnatt turned away from conceptual art and took up photography. Publicly critical of the Tate's negative attitude towards photography at that time, and with his work becoming increasingly unfashionable, Arnatt was dropped by the gallery system. He continued to work in relative obscurity focusing on the transformative action of photography on everyday objects. It is this post-conceptual phase of Arnatt's oeuvre that comprises the exhibition.

It was a basic tenet of conceptual art that it needed no object or artefact to exist, functioning equally well through mere verbal or written description. It seems notable then that Arnatt's photographs of trash, turds, tins, toys, cows, pets and people are so rich in visual, which is to say formal, information. Whilst the early black and white portraits seem lifeless and awkward, later colour pictures poetically enliven inanimate objects. In Miss Grace's Lane 1986-1987 discarded items vomit and croak their last or mumble to themselves or stare agog at their fate. Whilst these Beckettian unfortunates meet their solitary end the objects, usually decomposing foodstuffs, in Pictures from a Rubbish Tip 1988-1989 are flattened and abstracted, transformed into rich and sumptuous still-lives.

Arnatt's fascination with the transformative powers of photography continues up until 1992. In The Tears of Things (Objects from a Rubbish Tip) 1990-1991 items are retrieved and placed on a simple homemade plinth then photographed in close focus using natural light. Apart from the obvious pleasure Arnatt gains from looking intimately at the visual details of these objects, and as the title suggests, the toys and other items are injected with the pathos of rejection and neglect. Other series from this period transform objects in different ways: bricks become monumental; industrial gloves extra-terrestrial; cardboard boxes performative; tin cans ironic; dog turds irreverent; misshapen figurines allegorical.

It is too easy to suggest that Arnatt's fascination with discarded objects is an externalisation of the emotional and psychological effects of being discarded by the gallery system. Though this idea may contain some truth it has never, as far as I know, been articulated by the artist himself. At the centre of Arnatt's conceptual work was the question of what it meant to be an artist at that time. Perhaps Arnatt's later work is in fact a continued, though less direct, exploration of the same theme. It is ironic that when Keith Arnatt became a ‘real artist' – that is an individual following his own creative path without recourse to fashion – he was rejected by the very system which supposedly supports artists. Read in this way the message is clear: if you are not in vogue you have no value.

Artist and teacher