The Joys of Text

It’s not just the laboured punch line of an in-joke on a long-running, and occasionally quite funny, radio comedy quiz show but, as I can confirm having been there today, Mornington Crescent does truly exist and has a definite, physical presence in the material world in which we now find ourselves revolving. Furthermore, just outside the famous tube station stands an ancient, and heavily eroded, stone statue who, while some might wish it to be the trumpeter and question-master Humphrey Lyttelton, is, in fact, the libertarian and free-trader Richard Cobden. I seem to recall from my O-level history lessons, that he was the person largely responsible for repealing the Corn Laws which resulted in…but, no, don’t get me started. I can almost smell the cartridged ink that used to surge through my Parker fountain pen and onto the page when it was homework time and, once again, I had to write another exciting schoolboy essay about the pros and cons of 19th century agrarian economics and parliamentary legislation.

Sadly, there’s no time for any of that now so, let’s depart from this arresting commemoration of past events and move towards some of the exciting expressions of modern artistic activity that prompts the bloggery with which you are now engaged in reading. Today it comes courtesy of DRAF, the acronym for the David Roberts Art Foundation. Now, the last time I visited this place was quite a few months ago and on that occasion the half dozen rooms were full to bursting with a chaotic jumble of a show, wherein a serendipitous selection of artworks of different style, design and quality were thrown together to represent…what? Well, it seemed to me a curiously incoherent expression of the joie de vivre, typical among some of the more recent collectors of modern art and – were one to be intellectually snobbish and cruel – indicative of the mindset of someone who had spent a large amount of money on art and wished to show everyone just what this had enabled him to accumulate. Frankly, I thought he seemed in need of someone to help show him how it might be better displayed, someone…well, someone rather like myself. But I’m not here to pitch for a job and, anyway, I get the feeling that, that special someone may have already been taken on, since the current exhibition is so very much better than before.

Chaos and clutter have now been cleared away and buckets of white emulsion put to good effect to reveal a light, airy space which proves to be an ideal setting for the current exhibition – a well-crafted and thoughtful display of conceptual works by Fiona Banner. This seems to me to be shown to maximum advantage, giving the viewer every encouragement to take a good look and form an opinion, one way or the other. I confess, I was converted and enjoyed the show, although I wouldn’t be completely surprised to find a general audience marmited and pretty evenly divided between advocates and dissenters.

I suppose it’s fair to say that the artist is fascinated, intrigued, perhaps even obsessed, by the joys of text – not just the descriptive power of words but also the actual shape and typographical topology of all the constituent parts, including both letters and punctuation. This is most directly expressed in a fairly crude fluorescent light alphabet, that the artist has made herself, and that runs the whole length of one of the gallery walls, continuously flaring and dimming in luminescent power. It’s also celebrated in a marvellously silly array of black bean bags that represent the three-dimensional expression of full stops in an assortment of different fonts. In fact, you’re encouraged to sit on these soft sculptures and flick through a book Banner has produced, which collages various elements of her inspirational source material, from boxing gloves to model aeroplanes and Snoopy, the cartoon dog.

The other main work here, in which Banner describes the body of a disrobing life-class model, has been described as a verbal striptease, though it’s presented in a more matter-of-fact style rather than offering any sense of tittilatory revelation. So, there’s a written version, by way of a crazed graffito in scrawled red paint, followed up with a performance piece, captured on video, in which an actress reads out part of this description in front of a live audience. In the final lines of the reading, the woman’s navel is likened to a full stop, which seems an appropriate place to now pause and then move on.

So, it’s back down one branch of the Northern Line, across the Jubilee Line and the up the other branch of the Northern Line to reach London Bridge and then a walk along Bermondsey Street to get to the Eames Gallery. The Gallery is showing a very attractive selection of limited edition prints by Bridget Riley, from a very early black and white piece of the 1960s right up to work completed in the past few years. Riley has, of course, made a career playing with the optical effects created by repeating abstract patterns, but while some of her large oil paintings are almost migraine-inducingly painful to look at, the prints here are all relatively small with most in much more comfortable pastel shades. As such, they provide a simple, delightful distraction for the eye to puzzle over.

Further down the street is the White Cube which has decided to stage another curious mixed display, this time centered around a scratchy black and white film made by Eduardo Paolozzi in the early 1960s. It’s filled with his familiar mixture of robots and skyscrapers, cogs wheels and other machine parts but, for some reason, the usual pin-ups and cartoon characters are missing and along with the absence colour it seems to hark back to the Surrealist collages of Max Ernst rather than presage the power of Pop art that Paolozzi spent most of his subsequent life exploring. Other works in the exhibition are all contemporary and while some – like the celebration of consumer goods in Zak Kitnick’s acrylic sculptures of the boxes the kettle, can-opener and slow cooker came in; Eloise Hawser’s glossy video of a Burberry store; and Josephine Meckseper’s shiny, souped up, sculptural version of a Rauschenberg silkscreen have a sort of Neo-Pop feel – others are hard to connect with Paolozzi, his film or his interests. Frankly, they all look a bit insipid and even struggle to compete for interest against his creaky film that’s even older than I am. The other exhibition here consists of dozens of paintings by Sergej Jensen. They’re mainly minimal, colour-field works with some relief provided by the occasional bit of desultory figuration – horses in the main. The gimmick seems to be that the artist chooses make his own canvases by stitching together the cloth money bags that banks use to hold large quantities of coins. It prompts one to ask why? And, even having consulted the notes provided by the gallery, I still find that I’m unable to answer that question.

Finally, a little further south, I get to the Arthouse1 and three, room-sized installations by Richard Ducker. It’s a stylish presentation that combines wall-mounted texts, faux boulders, a video of clouds and white noise interference, a revolving plastic maquette and…well, I’m sure you get the picture. The whole ensemble has a tongue-in-cheek charm that almost dares the viewer to construct a narrative that will makes sense of the clues and explains everything with a happy, logical consistency. To me, it suggests the artistic equivalent of one of those conundrums from the famous MI5 Christmas quiz that recently confounded most of the nation’s top brains. Although, for some of us we knew all along that the only possible concluding answer had to be M*rn*ngt*n Cr*sc*nt.

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