Down to Southwark tube station en route to Tate Modern but first make a slight detour to check out what’s happening at the Jerwood Space. And this time it’s a presentation of work by the winners of their annual Painting Fellowship, a very generous scheme which not only gives the selected young artists a chunk of money but also links each of them up to their very own mentor – a more established art world luminary whose role presumably is to help them progress their professional development. The artworld is a notoriously tough and tricky place so I’m sure each of these early-career artists, as they’re described, will be grateful for any help they can get as they try to navigate their paths around it, through it, behind it, in it and over it. It’s not just the creative challenges – the requirement for an artist to make work that they find personally satisfying while also being both topical and challenging enough to resonate with a wider audience – that can be hideously difficult. There are also all the boring practicalities of finding money enough to live on and pay for studio space, paints and canvases while also trying to find a gallery willing to take the expensive risk of staging exhibitions and otherwise marketing and promoting the art. And, of course, even if the aspiring young artist does manage to achieve all these things and finally gets a few pictures onto the walls of a gallery, someone like me can all too easily dismiss the efforts of a couple of year’s worth of dedicated thought and struggle just by typing out some snide sentences of criticism. I kind of think that if I was a careers adviser I’d suggest anyone who wanted to be an artist had a serious rethink and considered something sensible and worthwhile that can also be highly creative, like bookkeeping or accountancy or, if that’s a bit too exciting, then perhaps consider a role in the hospitality sector making coffee or flipping burgers – or whatever it is they do to with the bits of meat at McDonald’s
Anyway, such sensible advice is clearly too late for the artists now showing here at Jerwood who have crossed the Rubicon and already made the first inroads into the jungle ahead. I suppose that after my previous comments I’d be a bit of a rotter to be too critical about the works on display. On the other hand, I’ve metaphorically signed the hippopotamus oath or whatever it is when art critic bloggers commit themselves to stating their honest opinions, without fear or favour, and otherwise upholding the standards of integrity and honesty that define the noble profession of the hack journalist. So, what did I think of the art? Well, Dale Lewis, presents dystopian tableaux that are painted with a simple, cartoon-like ferocity that, I suppose, tries to update the satiric sentiments of George Grosz. The garish colours, and crude caricatures scenes are certainly highly energetic and eye-catching but it’s not at all that clear who or what are the targets of all his exuberant savagery. Looking at these large paintings is a bit like being screamed at in a supermarket by some attention-seeking brat, which makes them by far the most noticeable and memorable works in the show but perhaps not the most appealing. It also means that they inevitably overshadow the smaller, more subtle works by the other two artists both of whom, it seems to me, are still making experiments to determine their respective signature styles. Francesca Blomfield offers up a few pastel-coloured, faux naif scenes of what look to me like bars or clubs, onto which she has added gnomic phrases like ‘today is newer than yesterday’. And Archie Franks uses a heavy impasto to add texture to her presentation of a series of fetish objects that include an old ormolu clock and the discarded contents of a shopping bag.
If I had the job of mentoring them I wouldn’t have a clue what to say about the practical side of how to pay the studio bills or how to get a gallery interested. And as for suggestions about developing their painterly styles or sense of composition or technique, I suppose I’d just say ignore what anyone else tells you and plough your own furrow. That, after all, is what I did all those years ago until I gave up trying to be an artist and discovered my true vocation, first as an accountant and now as a blogger.
So, on to Tate Modern for the Mona Hatoum retrospective which kicks off with one of her iconic images: a photograph showing a pair of Dr Martens attached by their laces to the ankles of her bare feet. It’s a striking, unsettling image that comes from a 1985 performance piece which involved her slowly walking down Atlantic Road in Brixton, hobbled by the pair of bovver boots which effectively walked behind her, matching each and every one of the painful paces she trod. What does the image represent? Well, there’s no simple, one-line answer but inevitably a lot of semi-suggested resonances are liable to be summoned into the mind of the viewer. That particular footware was the favourite fashion choice of policemen and skinheads whereas unshod feet seem to be a fairly recogniseable symbol for the world’s poor and oppressed. But are the meek and weak inevitably followed by the forces of the state? Or are the two always inextricably tied together and so both handicapped in some way? I suppose, in the end, each viewer has to make up their own metaphorical meanings. For me, the image brings back memories of Brixton, where I lived for a quarter of a century and the Brixton Artists Collective, of which I was an active member for three or so years back in the 1980s. Hatoum’s performance piece was part of Roadworks, a Performance Art Festival organised by Stefan Szczelkun, another member of the Collective that helped run Brixton Art Gallery back in those exciting, far-off days of artistic experimentation and happy, carefree bohemianism (see www.brixton50.co.uk for the Gallery archive).
The simple, unnerving and enigmatic image of the boots following the feet is fairly typical of much of the rest of the work in the Tate’s show which encompasses sculptures, videos and performance documentation covering Hatoum’s career over the past four decades. Inevitably some of the pieces are more compelling than others but when they work well they really do stick in the mind. For another artist it would seem sensible at this point to draw up a quick list of some of my favourite pieces amongst the several works on show here but, of course, in this artist’s case the word ‘favourite’ just seem so hugely inappropriate. Few of the pieces are particularly pleasant to look at or contemplate, in fact, the exact opposite is more usually the case and presumably what makes the artist most pleased, and satisfied that she’s done her job successfully, is when she sees us stare at the work and wince in recognition of a shared empathy of discomfort or suffering and an acknowledgement of the dark side of humanity. So, it’s hard to look disinterestedly at the cheese grater bed in which a humble yet useful kitchen implement has been transformed into a silent torturer simply by being magnified up to human scale and then laid out horizontally. And if looking at that makes you feel understandably itchy then you’ll probably feel a similar nervous frisson from Hatoum’s electrified kitchen, where a room full of familiar household objects – pots and pans, coat hangers, a mincer, a toy train, some table lamps – have all been connected by a wire that completes a simple electrical circuit. Lights glow and dim as the electricity whizzes round humming and flickering and intermittently making deadly each of these otherwise mundane everyday items. And one final example to help the uninitiated decide whether they wish to go to the Tate and enter Hatoum’s mindscape and share her disturbingly dark view of the world. Projected onto the floor of a small cubicle is a video showing an endoscopic inspection of the artist’s internal gastric system. It’s a rollercoaster tour of her tripes that seems perfectly designed to attract and repel the squeamish in equal measure and tracking along through the bifurcating intestinal tubes and other bits of the artist’s guts and gristle provides a much more intimate view of the artistic inner personality than we might otherwise have wished to see. But, like some car crash horror, it’s deliciously fascinating and hard not to just stand and stare. I suppose Hatoum is encouraging the viewer to consider the iniquities of torture or invasive therapies or perhaps the oppressive male gaze on the female form in art through the ages. As with all her work, there is an intriguing contrast between the images that are always frightfully explicit and the moral point of the work which is only ever ambiguously implicit. Ultimately it’s up to the viewer to determine the levels of profundity, portentousness or pointlessness encapsulated within each of the artworks. I think there’s probably a pretty fair balance of all three – which maybe is a bit like life in general.