Head down to Canada Water tube station today, which is way out East and definitely a bit off the usual artistic beaten track down which I more frequently make my meandering perambulations. But I’m feeling adventurous today so when I ride the escalators back up to ground level and find myself in the muddled middle of the concourse of a bus station, with a confusing confluence of pedestrian pathways and no obvious signage as to which direction to take, instead of giving up, retracing my steps and returning to the familiar surroundings of my usual central London comfort zone, I decide to emulate Livingstone – David, not Ken – and press on out into the great unknown, recklessly unsure as to whether I’ve pointed myself in the right direction or not. By bizarre good fortune, however, it seems that for once the gods who are in charge of these kinds of quantum orientational events have decided to smile down on me, rewarding my steadfast spirit of random exploratory investigation with an encouraging augury. Attached to the lamppost at a road junction just few strides away from where I’m now standing is a simple directional sign bearing just two words: The Gallery.
I kind of think that there just can’t be that many galleries in this part of the world so I assume that the sign must be a helpful abbreviated indicator of the route towards my destination of the Southwark Park Galleries or, as it was formerly known, CGP London or, as it was even more formerly known – when I first came across it about thirty years ago – the Café Gallery. Which prompts me to then wonder whether maybe it’s this penchant for name changing that has decided those in charge of the erection, positioning and labelling of such helpful instructional street furniture to settle for the simple generic titling of The Gallery. Although, having said that, it does seem that the signwriters in these parts have a slightly Surrealistic sensibility as I come across other pointers on my path announcing such peculiarly odd nomenclatural combinations as ‘Anthology Deptford Foundry’ and ‘Tideway Site Chawf’ – places that are sadly set to forever remain in my memory as unsolved linguistic mysteries as I must proceed on to my original destination of The Gallery that is sited in Southwark Park. And I’m quite pleased that I did, for the show here is a rather pretty piece of curatorial archaeology reconvening a series of sculptures, videos and wallworks, all of which were originally displayed in exhibitions organised during the latter half of the 1980s under the coordinational inspiration of Sandra Drew.
Now, reading through the list of artists involved in these shows confirms that Drew obviously had a bit of an eye for talent spotting all those years ago since many of the artists she picked for inclusion in her artistic projects have gone on to become familiar names and develop successful artistic careers, albeit that these are perhaps characterised more by the respect of their peers and professional critics rather than being honoured by the more tangible rewards that commercial recognition and promotion can bring. And while I’m not sure that any of the shows that Drew now draws upon here for her retrospective review were especially noteworthy or groundbreaking or have made their ways into the official history books of art, their current part-reprisal certainly recreates a familiar sense of those artistic times, at least as far as I remember them. It was perhaps the best of times and the worst of times – an era of political turmoil but also an age of intellectual honesty and integrity when curators, like Drew, were enthusiastic and very knowledgeable amateurs who organised exhibitions because they genuinely found the work of the artists they selected interesting and were keen to help them develop their ideas and talents, rather than because they saw it as part of some kind of marketing strategy for furthering their own personal professional advancement. And, similarly, the artists of the time – at least, the ones that Drew supported – made their work because they wanted to explore themes that interested or excited them and thought might interest or excite others, not because they had an eye as to what might be saleable to shysters and speculators.
In stylistic terms, most of the works here seem to me to fall into a sort of Conceptualist category but it’s from the tail end of the original serious strain of the art about ideas, as opposed to the flashy facile form that came next and made the YBA generation so fabulously famous and fawned upon. So while stuffing great sharks into tanks of water or slicing up farmyard animals and freezing them in formaldehyde undoubtedly created an initial visual shockwave that appealed to a generation whose visual aesthetics came from watching too many TV ads, for some of us that kind of art could never really compete with the more sincerely structured examples produced by the artists of the Drew generation who came before. At least, that’s one way of looking at it.
Of course, the problem with producing an art that is full of serious good intention and not created with the market place in mind, is that it still doesn’t necessarily follow that it will actually carry any great intellectual weight or originality, let alone be particularly visually appealing. Then again, it can usually be guaranteed to offer up at least some shimmer of interest, as is the case with just about all of the works that are now on display here. So, while I don’t think there are any truly great masterworks or any stunning revelations, there are a number of items that warrant a respectful re-inspection. And, for once, there are even a few short videos that I quite liked, partly because they’re so endearingly rough and experimental and utterly unfettered by any of the slick presentational CGI tricks that are the hallmark of their contemporary equivalents. So, the cello playing (Jayne Parker), the flower un-arranging (Judith Goddard, see above), and kids bashing spoons on windows (Catherine Elwes, see above) all held my bemused attention. As did some of the photographic imagery, just as it had done all those years ago when I first encountered it. Although I have to admit that it still leaves me feeling that if only I’d read just a little bit more Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault I might be in with a chance of grasping exactly what important structuralist or maybe deconstructrlaist points the artists were making about the posh party guests (Judith Ahern, see above), the toreador performance (Rose Finn-Kelcey), or the architecture overlain with slabs of paint (Julia Wood, see above). As for the more straightforwardly formalist sculptural items: the heads made of matchsticks (David Mach), the blob made of sellotape (Phyllida Barlow); and both the floor pieces of wooden lathes and balls of wire (John Cobb, see below, and Yoko Terauchi), well, I liked them, if only for providing a bit of light retinal relief from the more pointedly cerebral stuff previously referenced.
Exiting the Gallery, I’m suffused with a sort of happy nostalgic glow as I flashback to an earlier, maybe more innocent, era when artists and curators were less concerned with promoting themselves as media personalities and the creation of art was not primarily an exercise in brand promotion. But then I’m brought out of my reverie reflections by one of the invigilators who advises me that there’s actually more to see over at the nearby Dilston Gallery (the place where I’m currently stood apparently being correctly called the Lake Gallery, at which point I really do give up caring about all the gallery names). And so, after a couple of false starts, I manage to find my way across the park, between the football games and over the cricket pitch to an old church which has been happily reconsecrated into an art gallery. Although, it has to be said that the display area here has been left in a such a very deliberately distressed state, with walls flaking paint and plaster that, frankly, it seems to me to be almost deliberately designed to distract attention away from the artworks. As is the fact that there is very little lighting – so little, in fact, that the invigilator here helpfully pulls out a torchlight to help me read one of the identifying labels. All of which strikes me as a very odd case of curatorial misjudgement.
Anyway, after that, it’s back onto the tube, sticking on the Jubilee line to traverse the capital before re-emerging at Finchley Road and making the uncomplicated walk up the hill to get to the Camden Arts Centre. And instead of the usual (what strike me as being sometimes rather strained) attempts to offer up modishly radical avant-garde presentations of Postmodernistic cultural practices, here is a good old-fashioned straightforwardly chronological linear hanging of oil paintings aimed at illuminating an interesting, if somewhat arcane and slightly overlooked, corner of art historical history. To be more specific, it’s a spotlight on the curious collaboration between Grace Pailthorpe and her junior protégé Reuben Mednikoff as they pursued their joint investigations into the realm of so-called Psychorealism, their sort of self-designated, self-designed cross between psychological investigation and Surrealstic art exploration.
And the results are quite compulsively and crazily wonderful, as Mednikoff, who was by far the more prodigious and naturally skillful of the two, when it came to actually painting their dreamscapes, seems to have been enthused to produce an endlessly endearing range of witty biomorphic forms and lurid abstracted landscapes. It’s hard to look at all these absurdist curiosities now and not see the influence of everyone from Picasso and Dali to Tanguy and Wadsworth so that it looks to me as if the subconscious depths being drawn upon here for inspiration are those of an artist very much mediated by his familiarity with the styles and techniques of a whole lot of other more famous Continental contemporaries. Nevertheless, they’re all quite fun and provide an extensive and hugely entertaining celebration of the kind of earnest eccentricity that once seems to have incongruously flourished in certain English intellectual circles during the last century. As to any lasting legacy, well, Tinky-Winky, Laa-Laa and Dipsy certainly spring to mind.