Plashy Fens

Head down to South Kensington tube station and then walk up the steady slope that takes me past the tourists going to the Museums, the students going to Imperial College and the explorers going to the Royal Geographical Society. Finally I get to Kensington Gardens which is looking particularly radiant today, suffused as it is with nature’s palette of autumnal tones decorating the bosky arboreal sward. Scouring the horizons for questing voles passing feather-footed through the plashy fens, I strike a blank but up in front of me is the Serpentine Gallery, the sight of which prompts me to turn away from admiring the wonders of the natural world, terminate my transient botanical meanderings and instead brace myself for an encounter with some rather more factitious artistical design work. And today, the creative favoured with having been given the entire gallery space to present his works for public interrogation is Albert Oehlen, an artist whose name is, I confess, utterly unknown to me. Not that this fact is especially surprising since London’s second tier public galleries like the Serpentine, Whitechapel, Camden Arts (the younger, smaller siblings to the upper echelon Hayward, Royal Academy, Tates etc) seem more frequently that not to endeavour to stage one-person shows of one-person people of whom I have never previously encountered.

It’s a default curatorial practice that arises, I assume, in part due to the straightened financial constraints under which these institutions must try to work. Meaning that budgets are unavailable for the substantial research and logistical expenses required to stage displays that cover either broad thematic strands or mini-retrospectives of the kind of worthy and familiar old stagers that I might be familiar with. Added to which, presumably, are the egoistical desires of the galleries’ senior staff who wish to rub shoulders with the rich and famous patrons of the luxury commercial artworld. And what better way of attracting the interest and future favours of these mega-rich titans of the international artmarket than by agreeing to display the works of those among their stable of artists who are less well established or otherwise thought to be in need of some kind of promotional pluggering and boostering? As far as I can tell, Oehlen is contracted to the Gagosian group who I imagine must be delighted that, for agreeing to make some sponsoring contribution (acknowledged, but not quantified, in the accompanying gallery guide), one of their men gets the chance to promote himself by filling up London’s loveliest gallery space for an expansive four-month run (which, of course, also consequently frees up display space within their own commercial galleries to show the work of some of their other artists).

The relationship between public and commercial galleries is a bit of a woozly one but I can’t help thinking that there must be enough interesting young aspiring artists out there – not to mention a phalanx of mid-career strugglers – who have not yet (and perhaps never will) managed to find a commercial gallery to support and promote them. And I’d have thought that it was the more properly appropriate remit of the public galleries – who, after all, receive substantial financial support from the likes of hard-working tax payers like me and you – to seek out and help these unrepresented or under represented artists, rather than to offer what amounts to subsidised assistance to the marketing operations of the phenomenally wealthy private sector galleries.

At which point it probably seems sensible to pause the harrumphing button and get back to thinking about the aesthetics of the actual art on the walls rather than grumbling about the backstory back-office motives and motivations that are associated with the events that led up to their eventual display. Not least because I’m still just about na├»ve enough to believe that most of the people who are fortunate enough to be able to support themselves financially through making and selling their own artworks retain the same sense of selfish selfless uncompromising idealistic integrity and unbiddable desire to experiment, innovate and create things that directed them into becoming artists in the first place. And I’m sure that Oehlen falls into this category.

So, after all that grumblistic mumbling, what are Oehlen‘s works actually like? Well, I guess they could be described as a bit of a Post-Modernistic mish-mash melee of overlapping styles and painterly techniques including, but not limited to, such things as, a dash of faux naif primitivism, a splash of abstractified expressionistic daublings, and a bash of cartoony graffitiesque doodlings. In other words, the works, which come in convenient size gradation from the small scale up to the wall size, are an eclectic assortment of images, with varying degrees of representational figurational accuracy, all layered up on top of each other and given a final blurring accompaniment of misty colouration. That the final entirety of these works resembles more a nicely random structured sherry trifle, say, than a tureen of discarded slops, clearly owes much to the practised skills of Oehlen who, rather impressively, manages to hold everything together and balance his mess of elements into some kind of a successful composition, despite the centripetal forces that threaten to tear everything apart into complete chaos.

Well, that’s my take and, ultimately, a bit like listening to a blast of be-bop jazz, the results are liable to energise and enervate viewers in roughly equal measures. I can definitely understand why some people would be hugely irritated by the more archly annoying child-like drawings of cartoon faces which peer out from so many of the paintings, and seem to be the design equivalent of the artist sticking out his tongue or dropping his trousers and mooning at his audience. But despite Oehlen‘s apparent desire to epater the bourgeois gallery-goer, such is his innate sense of good manners he can’t ultimately resist apologising for this naughty streak by covering it up with the overpainted accessories and then giving the overall composition a rather lovely balance of forms and tones. And although he’d probably hate me for saying it, the underlying structure of many of his paintings strike me as being really rather traditionally well formulated such that it wouldn’t take very much – a bit or turps perhaps – to smear and tweak them into something resembling one of those pretty Peter Doig dreamscapes.

Anyway, having gone round the Gallery a couple of times, I ended up quite liking the show although I’m not sure the art is really so exceptional that it deserves to fill the whole of the Serpentine for quite such a very long run. Had I been organising things I think I’d have reread my Trump negotiating manual and tried to bargain Gagosian down to having half the gallery space for half the time and then given a couple of recent art school graduates a chance to show their stuff; or maybe put together an open-entry thematic show on something related to social networking or some other hot topic; and then put on a mini-sized retrospective of someone like Mark Gertler, Gillian Ayres, Eileen Agar, Derek Boshier or…well, I’m sure you can name your own favourite artist who might be deserving of a comprehensive career revaluation. All of which probably goes to explain why I’m stuck blogging about art instead of running a gallery and sharing cocktails with Larry, Jay and Victoria or Hans, Ralph and Maria.

Leaving the old Serpentine to walk across the bridge to get to the new annex I find myself dreaming of swapping small talk as I mix a martini, sip a sambuca and share a bon mot while gazing out over the Venetian Lagoon at some exclusive Biennial party soiree and…ah, what might have been had I only been willing to make those curatorial compromises and… oh well, as the late great Doris used to sing, Que Sera, Sera. But before I get a chance to join in the chorus and scare away the lakeside swans, my reverie comes to a shuddering halt as I enter the Gallery and find myself and everything else suffused in a yellowy gloom which seems to be resulting from the entire floor and wall area having been covered in a lemony-shaded tin foil topping. Yes, it’s an installational artwork – no simple sequential line of paintings on the walls to gaze at while walking round the space – but rather the opportunity to have oneself enfolded within one whole gallery-sized immersive experience. It’s the artistic equivalent of a day at Alton Towers…no, sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away. Although I do think the idea of this kind of art is to try to appeal to all the senses all at once and overwhelm the viewers by transporting them away from the everyday mundanities and pushing them into a whole new world of…well, of what, I’m not quite sure on this particular occasion. Although the introductory writing on the Gallery wall references the artist’s interests in ‘notions of discipline, dissent, labour and queer identity’ and suggests that the work explores ‘structural violence, registers of harm and the effects of acid, blood and hormones.’

Aside from the new structural furnishings, the decorator, Patrick Staff, has attached some leaky pipes in the ceiling that drip water into a set of strategically sited oil drums. Then he’s also filled the two internal display spaces with a some plinths covered with screaming tabloid newspaper headlines plus a video that shows scenes from an abattoir. A little sign advises that the film contains strong material that some visitors may find disturbing and that it is not suitable for children. Frankly, I’m not sure that adults will find it that entertaining either, but then that applies not just to the video but to the exhibition as a whole.

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