Head down to the Elephant and Castle tube station and then search out the bus stop that will take me away from this grim confusing intersection of roads, shops and pedestrian pathways. At least the truly creepy and unpleasant warren of subterranean underpasses with their dreadful murals all got filled in and covered over a few years ago and it’s definitely easier now to navigate a way across all the chaotic junctions. But, even so, the place still retains a kind of subliminal atmosphere of gloom that I imagine must send shudders of suspicion and unease up the spines and round the synapses of any of the more sensitive pscho-geographers who happen to stray too near its aura of determined depression and desperation. Thankfully, I don’t have to wait too long for my bus to take me away from this omphalos of karmic negativity although it has to be said that, even after a fifteen minute ride, I reckon I can still feel the radiating ripples of its draining cosmic chill.
Everything changes, however, as soon as I pass through the welcoming portals of the South London Gallery and, turning my back on the metaphysical, metaphorical and meteorological grayness of my shadowy journey, I enter into the bright expansive exhibition space, take a deep breath and open up my mind in expectation of encountering the enlightening delights of their latest artistical displays. And on this occasion I suppose part of me really is, if not exactly eagerly expecting, but maybe at least wishfully hoping, that today I really will see something new that will shock, surprise, energise or otherwise cause me to rethink, revise or review my paradigmatic vision of the world and how it can be rendered, represented and replicated…or something like that. The reason being that I’ve come along to see the latest incarnation of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition, the show that purports to offer up a snapshot cross-section selection of the artworks currently being produced by today’s cohort of youthful art students as they endeavor to tap into the zeitgeist with fresh eyes and ideas unencumbered by the cataractual fuzziness and weary unsurety that inevitably come with age and experience.
And, as I think I may have grumbled before, it seems to me that the current age in which we live is one of such revolutionary turmoil and of such increasing and speeding societal change – whether it’s via the vast expansion of new social media networks that are superseding all the traditional routes of communication or the conflicting messages arising from the development of identity political issues alongside the emergence of the fake news visions of the so-called populist political movements – that there really should be a concomitant artistic explosion of radical new revelations of forms and formats that reflect all this and help to provide some focus, analysis, commentary and so forth for the rest of us non-playing spectators. After all, the upheavels of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to Impressionism; the insanity of the First World War was matched by the absurdity of Dada; and the permissive youth culture of the Sixties was reflected through the tropes of Pop Art. So, where is the Degas, Duchamp or Warhol de nos digital jours?
Sadly it seems that he, or perhaps more likely she, is yet to emerge, at least judging by the current Bloombergshow. As far as I can see, there are no outliers here and I suppose the only really surprising or shocking thing about the current show is how very unsurprising and unshocking it all is. Today’s youthful artists seem, at least on the face of it, to be just as flummoxed as everyone else as to what’s going on today and happy to cling on to the tired methods of the past to try to describe, interrogate and investigate – or maybe that should be ignore – the brave new world we are currently traversing.
I can’t help thinking that a scan round this Bloomberg exhibition is a bit like a walk round one those French Salon shows that took place in the late 19th century and that were full of finely finished paintings of scenes illustrating heroic battles, titillating episodes from the Classics or uplifting moral tales from the Bible. Of course, everyone looks back at those kinds of paintings today and smirks at their outdatedness and irrelevance and with the perfection of hindsight can see that the contemporaneous work being produced by the Impressionists, who were famously excluded from the official shows, were so much more relevant in both style and content. Similarly, the Royal Academy Summer Shows for most of the 20th century were happy to ignore just about all the Modernist developments that were going on over on the Continent in favour of serving up the same old formulaic landscapes portraits and still lifes in the sale old figurative styles that had remained pretty much unchanged from a century earlier.
Which raises the question as to whether there are, in fact, artists out there working on something new but who are being overlooked, ignored or unselected by the kinds of establishment panels who get to pick work for these sorts of Bloomberg-type shows – or else maybe it’s the case that the truly insightful young people who do have their fingers on the contemporary public pulse have decided that traditional forms of visual art are just redundant and no longer suitable for capturing and commenting on the contemporaneous concerns of the day. It’s hard not to avoid the thought that maybe tomorrow’s true artists are now currently working away at coding computer games, hacking at instagram accounts or making their waves in some other ways that are just simply going unnoticed and washing over the aging antennae of not just this ancient correspondent but also all the other more elevated members of the blinkered artworld aristocracy.
Having said all that, and heartily criticised what’s not on show in the Bloomberg exhibition, I feel a certain obligation to comment on what is on show. And I certainly don’t want to be cruel or unkind to any of the entrants whose work was chosen, as I’m sure they’re all sincere and dedicated practitioners of their art and none of the paintings, sculptures or assemblages in the show is completely without merit. Some are even quite nice and deserve a quick second look. But, taken as a whole, the show is just all a bit unexciting, unexceptional and kind of disappointing and, since I’m finding it so hard to do anything other than damn with faint praise, I think I’d better give up and merely say that the pictures I’ve used as illustrations above are, I think, fairly representative of the work in the show as a whole (excepting the time-based films and videos which I didn’t manage to find the time to watch) and are, in order of presentation, by Yuko Obe, Carrie Grainger, Janet Sainsbury, Mohammed Sami, Jocelyn Mcgregor and Sam Henty.
And so after a somewhat dispiriting start to the day I bus back to the Elephant and Castle and take a short walk round to the Drawing Room which, as its name suggests, specialises in showing exhibitions of works created by pens, pencils, pastels and the like. Previous displays that I’ve seen at the gallery have been at the Conceptual end of the artistic spectrum and been less concerned with the technical facility of the various draughtstmen and women than with the breadth of their thought processes or the depth of their intellectualising skills. And I can only assume that my own cerebral facilities have started to decay away since I confess that these shows have left me entirely unmoved. Today’s exhibition, however, is much more straightforward being a simple celebration of the portrait genre courtesy of examples of work from a couple of dozen scribblers including famous names like Ingres, Picasso (see above), Freud, Hockney and Auerbach. There’s no particular logic to the choice of artists nor any discernible curatorial thread that links the works, beyond the simple fact that all do indeed show realistic renderings of the faces and features of various friends, models and sitters. But one would have to be even more curmudgeonly that I am not to gain at least some enjoyment from simply poring over this beauty parade of pretty works.
After that it’s a quick dash to get to the Institute of Contemporary Arts which is hosting its annual one-day only Artist’s Self-Publishers’ Fair. And having rambled on earlier about all that futuristic stuff it’s good to be able to step back into the determinedly analogue world wherein reside that amiable bunch of eccentrics, obsessives, free-thinkers and radicals who devote great energies and efforts into producing hand-crafted copies of printed hard-copy magazines, posters and other ephemeral manifestations containing all manner of insights into matters poetical, polemical, pornographical and indeed anything else that falls within the spectrum of the arcane, bizarre or challenging. As co-author and co-self-publisher of Celebrity Dad, a 500-run print edition psychological self-help manual for familial intergenerational healing, that managed to achieve only single-digit sales, I feel I am amongst kindred spirits here in the Fair and am pleased to exit with a signed copy of Sara MacKillop’s 2013 edition of New Stationery Department, a sort of collagistic homage to the trade in highlighters, concertina files, desk-tidies, post-it notes and much much more. And I can’t help wondering whether maybe, counter-intuitively, the route on to the future might turn out to lie somewhere along this retro pathway back to the past?