Are You Alright? New Art from Britain

Jonathan Baldock, Pierrot, 2011

by Jodie James Elliott

Originally posted January 2013

Catalogue published by the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 2013

This group exhibition featuring a new generation of British artists diversely posits a schism between the Modern and Contemporary through the spectacle of redevelopment, urban shrines, sexuality, and celebrity culture. With allusions to the grotesquely beautiful and exploring the darker side of kitsch, Are You Alright? reveals a trend of disillusionment with contemporary British society. Curated by Canadian artist, Derek Mainella and British artist Elizabeth Eamer, the works in this exhibition emerge from the darkness as a unique articulation in art itself, granting passage to coherence by virtue of a kind of introspection that is anything but Postmodern. Yet somehow, among the splenetic observations of the mores and fascinations in contemporary life, the work may also be seen as a kind of paean to art as cultural critic. These artists, in whatever way they may be affected by the cultural environment, no longer seek to simply expose the external elements, they seem to express an interest in how these external elements are revealed in the work – either through process or concept. Following the YBAs, this next generation of artists work with their own hand – there are no armies of art-slaves under their charge. Instead, we see a collection of artists working obsessively in quiet studios, diligently researching and examining strategies of expression in art history and redeploying them in a complex response to the assault of contemporary culture.

Caroline Achaintre was born in France and raised in Germany, where she trained as a blacksmith before attending the Chelsea College of Art & Design on a scholarship awarded by the DAAD German Exchange Service. Inspired by German Expressionism, Postwar British sculpture and Primitivism, Achaintre deploys the tropes associated with these trends in a manner that relies upon the viewer to draw from his/her own interpretation of signs to construct meaning. For Achaintre, the movements indicate a juncture between the ancient and modern worlds – as if the age we know today came to be as a result of the Great War. Particularly Primitivism, rife with the epistemic violence of alterity, it tends to be denotative of some other tribe. Swirler (2012), crafted through the process of tufting wool, and decidedly presented in the museological context, compels the viewer’s instinct to observe from a cultural distance. The overall composition rejects the rectangular field common to two-dimensional art in favour of angular boundaries. This strategy alone is sufficient to render the work object over image, yet it hangs on the wall as a geometric proclamation, an observation of Art History that is anthropological.

The anthropomorphic Panto (2012), a somewhat comical reference to fetishism and sexual ritual, alludes to the more mystical tribal practices and secret undertones of civilized society. As a ceramic work its materiality challenges the viewer’s understanding and compulsion to experience the tactile qualities of leather. This mirrored reality of fantasy is a provocative exploitation of the slippery relationship between sign and signifier, viewer and object.

Elizabeth Eamer, Pointing Beckoning Hands B003 + A002, 2012, Oil on Canvas

Elizabeth Eamer similarly addresses the gap between observer and the observed. By using titles such as Fear A001, B001, and B002 with Pointing and Beckoning Hands, 2013, the artist implies an esoteric system of labels inscribed upon an arbitrarily categorical division of faces, emotional expression, and gender. This practice, referencing the remnant empirical methodology of the Enlightenment in anthropological observations relies on the contemporary viewer’s distrust of inscribed categorization to locate meaning. Once the initial cue is discarded, the viewer becomes locked in a contemplative loop, moving from one face to the next, one expression to the next or one compositional characteristic to the next. Other connotations emerge such as communicative expressions within a heterogeneous community network in which signs that appear absolute can be infinitely divided by nuance. Pointing Beckoning hands B003 + A002 (2013) presents only two categorical options, the classic dyad of the symbolic order. Yet here Eamer exposes the complications of binary assumptions inherent to this either/or conundrum. Each carefully-studied hand demonstrates the subtleties of expression that exist beyond the grand gestures. Some beckon eagerly, others with hesitation. Some point accusatorily, others merely to identify. Between the two extremes Eamer explores a gradient of possibilities, demonstrating distrust for systems of codification in favour of organic human expressions.

James Unsworth undermines the sign and signifier relationship, turning it completely on its head by intentionally subverting images or characters shared by the collective memory. Drawing on the most bestial parts of human nature, Unsworth’s work tends toward the grotesque and depraved sides of sexuality and a frank penchant for shit. Anyone familiar with late postmodernism will already be acquainted with this symbolism for the inassimilable, that which cannot be absorbed nor which can lead to satisfying conclusions or affirmations. These are the observations of Georges Bataille, the writings of whom were explored with great relish by the Postmodernists. However the relationship here seems less conflicted. Rather than the incongruous compulsion/repulsion abjecthood, Unsworth serves his shit as a reprieve from fear, wrapped in the warm comforting blanket of popular culture.

In the latest novel by Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England, Amis seeks to capture, among other things, the atmosphere of the times in the dirty glamour of celebrity-obsessed Britain. This demonstrates that the visual artists are not alone as they stand back and watch in horror. Amis has touched upon this before. Under the guise of an earlier character, the History of Increasing Humiliation offers an account for the decline in status and virtue of literary protagonists: “first gods, then demigods, then kings, then great warriors, great lovers, then burghers and merchants and vicars and doctors and lawyers. Then social realism: you. Then irony: me. Then maniacs and murderers, tramps, mobs, rabble, flotsam, vermin.” Following that, Amis delivers the basest of all humanity: the celebrity.”

Comprised of 50 framed works hung in the in a grid, thereby undermining the fetishistic compulsion for individual reverence, Dawn Mellor’s We Love Our Audience (2010-2012) is a pantheon of celebrity. Battered, defiled, decomposed and demoralized, Mellor’s celebrity treatment tears away the shroud of glamour to reveal something monstrous and violent. Like Achaintre, Mellor depends on the viewer to bring his or her own experiences to the encounter, which is – in the context of celebrity – not necessarily universal, but certainly standardized. In contemporary culture, celebrity worship parallels religious reverence in practice and obsession. Thus the viewer’s shock and discomfort to such defilement approximates a reaction to blasphemy.

In 2011, Mellor published a collection of drawings she created growing up in the 1980s entitled Michael Jackson and Other Men. Although there may not have necessarily been any critical analyses behind the original intent of these drawings, by bringing them together today in the context of contemporary art Mellor reassigns the pages as indexes of the fan with stalker tendencies to obsess over the object of his or her desire.

Graham Dolphin, Wall (Walk in Silence), 2012, Graphite, ink, spray paint, crayon, tippex, marker pen, biro on paper

Similarly, Graham Dolphin examines the phenomenon of celebrity in his mural Wall (Walk in Silence), 2012. The meticulous reconstruction of a public tribute by fans of the late Ian Curtis is a replica of the memorial created in the popular tradition of rock star fans. But as an urban shrine, it is a memorial nonetheless. Dolphin presented additional reconstructed artefacts at Art Basel in Switzerland in 2010, including a plaster cast replica of Jim Morrison’s memorial stone in Paris – an index of the adoring fans who conclude their pilgrimage to the burial site through a ritual of graffiti tribute.

Dolphin’s video piece included in this exhibition, 1500 Images of Kate Moss in 60 Seconds (2001), is a frenzy of relentlessly-looped images that considers the relationship between public and celebrity as intrinsically bound by photographic mediation. Pulsing with nervous energy, this brief piece is a commentary on both the proliferation of celebrity dissemination and the average viewer’s familiarity with each and every single frame.

How information is conveyed, controlled and understood is also central to Harry Burden’s work. His influences span aesthetic theory, classical art and digital imagery, which combine to produce a practice firmly rooted in painterly sensibilities. By use of traditional gallery presentation subverted by florescent lighting, Burden transforms mundane and even unsavoury objects such as dirty mops into striking spectacles of colour and form. Through this transformation, a new perspective is created, disrupting and even expropriating information that was previously held valid. In his piece, Dirt Painting, the artist uses dirt and detritus swept from the floor of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, mixed with water to paint an image of texture and tone that is unique to the site in which it was created. The museum wall is transformed into art using nothing more than what should otherwise be discarded is both a self-reflexive critique engaging the institution and a permformative gesture.

A raw-material presentation of artwork intended to subtlety undermine traditional museological methods is a performative gesture that is more theatrical. Jonathan Baldock’s installation transforms this quiet corner of the gallery setting into a workshop. Yet with references to Jean-Antoine Watteau’s harlequin, performance and art is conceptually present as well, diffusing the irony of the clown, both humorous and terrible. And among the playful hints of Rococo, Baldock creates modular geometric rhythms with utterances in the vernacular of Abstraction. The resulting displacement of setting, narrative and conflicted forms of artistic genres evokes a disconcerting sense of alienation.

But perhaps the artist overcomes the resulting alienation by inserting the personal traces of his process that tends toward the home-crafted DIY tradition. Employing varied skills in his work ranging from knitting and weaving to creating his own play-dough mixture of flour, salt and food colouring, Baldock achieves masterful finishes to his sculptures using simple and understated materials, antagonizing the consumer glitz that was the penchant of the artist’s 1990s predecessors. By now, a new trend has clearly been established separating two generations of British artists straddling the turn-of-the-century.

Laura Oldfield Ford treads new ground in her bleak landscape of consumer lust and social order, which is neither contrast nor juxtaposition. We can now freely drop the axiom of irony. This is, frankly, the reality of the current social contract. Completing her MFA in Painting at the Royal College of Art in 2007, Oldfield Ford has since become a politically-active artist creating works that engage with London as a site of social antagonism. Neighbourhoods once known to the squatters and ravers of the 1990s eventually succumbed to gentrification, deteriorating through perverse disorder into sparkling affluence. A year ago, Oldfield Ford’s exhibition, London 2013: Drifting through the ruins chronicled the failed utopia of east London, which was the site of the 2012 Olympic games. The images remap the marshland raves into international spectacle and its ultimate legacy, the massive spread of abandoned concrete and macadam. The artist’s contribution to Are You Alright? is a series of images that leads the viewer on a psychogeographic stroll through contemporary London. Again, this is a tactic not exclusive to Britain’s visual artists. On his momentous walk from London to New York (interrupted, of course, only by the “incurious interlude of club class seat”), author Will Self set out to explore the deep topography of the cultural landscape in a way that can only be experienced through diversions from the established routes. Through the endeavour of psychogeography, one becomes “aware that while the physical and political structure of London may have mutated down the ages, as torrents of men and women coursed through its streets, their individuality is as nothing, set beside the city’s own enduring personification.”

Oldfield Ford’s public spaces are the sites where the Social Contract is dictated rather than negotiated. Here, the site is offered without commentary (that was a task for the postmodernists, the juxtaposeurs), sufficient for a generation with a collective consciousness.

With an adept handling of lurid shades and uneasy subject matter, Justin Mortimer creates a disconcerting space where our interpretation of what appears to have happened is in conflict with the clues that identify the scene. The balloons, softly succumbing to gravity, temporally position the moment as following some kind of party, yet emerging from the dark and muted tones, a pair of lifeless legs. Mortimer, who has mastered the artistic rendering of lifeless flesh, populates this nameless environment with a solitary figure whose presence seems to indicate the aftermath of some terrible desecration we will never know. In this, Perimeter (2012), presents the philosophical conundrum of the distance between evidence and interpretation. The viewer is consequently subjected to the familiar trepidation of alienation. Its anthropomorphic scale compounds this uneasy experience as it occupies the entire focal point of the visual field – an aggressive strategy that makes allusions to the power dynamics existent in social spaces.

The figures in Tom Gidley’s work are detached from the social environment and presented in isolation, deindividualized through process of intriguing brushwork reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s personal struggle with alienation. Unlike his twentieth-century counterpart, Gidley’s inception plays with realism, the traces of which remain in the completed work as emphasis of the intervening distortion. The Pacifist (2012) is paired with a glazed ceramic piece, further echoing the unsettling portraits of disfigured fleshy pulps where Bacon reflected upon the self and postwar trauma. With Abacus (2012), the figure is turned away from the viewer altogether, deeply withdrawn and introverted. These strategies brilliantly intensify the isolating factors upon a subject withdrawn in anxiety and reverted into infantile self-assurance. Conversely, the individual represented in Silo, 2012 peers boldly out from the pictorial field only to be quelled by the artist’s hand – perhaps a rejection of the insolence in asserting individuality or an idiosyncratic affectation of the self in a futile relationship with the public sphere.

It is not surprising that personal withdrawal may also be reflected in the artistic process itself. Though not exclusively an abstract artist, Boo Saville’s work selected for this exhibition offers examples of abstraction created through a labour-intensive process, exploring detail and repetitive gestures so obsessively that that they seem to hold everything yet show nothing in particular. They must be examined closely where, within the layers upon layers of cross-hatched penwork, the intensely focused attention of the artist is revealed. Both Multi Edge (Green) and Multi Edge (Red) nearly epitomizes the certain abstract principles such as the artist’s hand in relation to colour, form and surface. For Saville, the process is almost therapeutic as the time and thought invested into their production takes her to a state, in her words, “of focus and clarity, frustration and elation,” The drawings then inform her paintings as roadmaps to an aesthetic goal. With her 2012 painting, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Saville reiterates the layering process, mixing colours to echo the biro drawings. Each application of paint is subsequently sanded smooth, producing a highly finished surface, contrarily erasing the traces of her own hand so all that remains within the surface and colour is the visual impression. The artist’s withdrawal from the external environment is so complete that it removes her presence altogether.

Conversely, and finally, Clem Crosby’s approach to abstraction takes form as gestural paintings proclaiming the artist’s presence. Drawing upon his surfaces with the brush as though it were a pencil, Crosby builds his paintings as a reaction to the broader cultural phenomenon of feeling increasingly alienated in the Twenty-First Century. This is the artist’s hand par excellence. And if one shall dare venture into the fog of New Modernism that is beginning to roll in, I could suggest that, unlike the Abstract Expressionists of the mid-twentieth-century who ejaculated their Freudian psyches onto the wide-open canvases of America, abstraction of this kind is the result of the opposite: it is an introversion. Follow the brushstroke lines. Not bold, but deceptively shaky and timid. This is a reprieve from the noise of the Twenty-First Century.

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