Stroppy Socialism or Mardy Marxism

Start the day in Eastcastle Street, which is just to the north of Oxford Street tube station. In the past few years, a bunch of small commercial galleries have set up shop here and I figure it should be fairly easy to take in three or four shows and find some art that’s interesting enough to write about and entertaining enough to recommend. Unfortunately, I get off to a bad start. There’s no-one on the front desk at Pi Artworks and the place feels a bit chilly and abandoned – which could all be part of the installation but I don’t really think it is. There aren’t any leaflets lying around either to help introduce the art and this is a bit of a shame since I get the feeling that Parastou Forouhar is passionately trying to tell some story or get some message across but, if that is the case, I need some help with the interpretation. There are little flickbooks showing someone being dragged away and stoned, a big photograph of an arm poking through a swathe of material and some wallpaper with a butterfly motif. They look like illustrations plucked from the pages of a heavy duty polemic but, aside from being serious, political and demanding my attention, I’ve no real idea what particular thesis is being promulgated.

Next door at Carroll/Fletcher I’m promised The Sound of Empty Space, works by the sound artist Adam Basanta but unfortunately I think my karma must be a bit out of kilter today as I seem to have managed to pick the worst possible time for a visit. Instead of empty space, the gallery is full of a troop of young art students eagerly tramping around from one room to the next, and I sort of think I’m going to need a more contemplative atmosphere to be able to appreciate the show. So I decide to give up on Eastcastle Street and instead make my way to the Richard Saltoun gallery, which is next on my target list. But it’s not just the usual analogue karma that’s hassling me today, the digital gods of Google maps have also decided to give me grief and I can’t get a signal, or whatever it is that makes these temperamental machines decide to stop working properly. I’ve got a vague idea where the gallery is, as I’ve been there a few times before, but my sense of direction is hopeless so, be warned, it may take some time to get there. Basically, the plan is to head north and turn left at some point.

Using this subconscious satnav method I manage to bump into another few galleries along the way. Alison Jacques is showing Erika Verzutti’s wall pieces which are sort of light cartoon drawings that the artist has decided to make heavy by casting them in bronze and then painting them. It’s an odd technique that perhaps works better with some ideas than others, so while the more abstract works looks quite pretty, others, including the bikini, just look a bit silly. Upstairs at Josh Lilley there are some funky, graffiti style painting from Josh Reames, which are quite fun, while downstairs Christof Mascher offers some quirky but slightly more conventional landscapes. The Christine Park Gallery has a curious little mixed show of artists who are apparently the finalists in some open entry competition taking place in London, Prague and Turin. It’s not clear who chose the art or what the criteria for selecting it were, suffice to say the work is all a bit of a random mixture, part abstract, part figurative. Some is ok and, for what it’s worth, I quite liked Giacomo Montanelli’s little gray painting. If the exhibition says anything at all, it’s that there are a lot of people out there making art and a lot of small galleries (and not just in London) showing it which, I guess, is not such a bad thing.

Josh Reames funky art

After quite a lot of wrong turns and headscratching I finally manage to stumble my way to my destination. Richard Saltoun seems to have cornered the market in putting on shows featuring first generation British Conceptualists from the ‘70s amd ‘80s. This was the era when artists were a very serious bunch and definitely not to be confused with all those second generation slapstick Conceptualists like Damian Hirst and Sarah Lucas. If the younger YBA generation thought that the purpose of art was to shock and titillate and generate lots of cash, then the older OBA lot had very different agenda. For them, the purpose of art was to educate and elevate its audience’s visual and political consciousness. Part of this worthy enterprise also entailed trying to confound the capitalist art market by deliberately making art that couldn’t easily be commodified, commercialised, packaged or sold. This led to the rise of forms like Land Art, Performance Art, Auto-destructive Art and, in the case of Victor Burgin, art as posters that were glued directly onto the walls, only to be scraped off at the end of the show. Such is now the case with UK 76, which Richard Saltoun has disinterred from the archives and pasted onto his gallery space.

Burgin was one of the godfather’s of political, pedagogic art and his series of posters here display one of the classic techniques of the style – adding text to large scale black and white photographs. According to the gallery leaflet, the aim of the exhibition (which, as its title suggests, was first produced in 1976) was to provide ‘the most succinct ideological snapshot of British society of the time’. And while it’s not explained exactly what the ideology was that framed the production, I think it’s safe to say it was probably the sort of stroppy socialism or mardy Marxism that was the default position of artists at the time. I know, as I was pretty narky myself, that year – sweltering in my ill-fitting overalls, stacking crates in a Schweppes factory and being oppressed by my bosses. In my spare time I was also starting to make abstract collages that no-one ever much liked, while a slightly younger generation was turning to the nihilism of Punk. And what was Burgin up to? Well, as we can see here, he produced a series of fairly random, unstaged images of everyday scenes of ordinary people – working in an office or factory or just doing the shopping – and then added an accompanying commentary that reads like a spoof sociology lesson. The writing seems to be a bit of a William Burroughs cut-up configuration, part Cosmopolitan, part Marxism Today, and totally unreadable. Does this quasi documentary approach produce a more accurate portrait of society than, say, half a dozen portraits, landscapes and interiors grouped together from that year’s Royal Academy Summer Show? I suppose I’d have to admit that, yes, it probably does although, given the choice, I’m not sure that I’d really want either to adorn my living room walls.  Having said that, this is definitely an exhibition that’s worth taking a look at if, for no other reason than, to see just how much the art of ideas has changed, forty years on.

In my role as patron of the arts, I finally get round to posting off my letter to the Collections Registrar at the National Portrait Gallery, repeating my generous offer to donate a selfportait monoprint by Chila Kumari Burman.  And, since they see to be unfamiliar with her art and the importance of her role in the development of Black Britsh art, I also enclose a copy of Eddie Chambers‘ definitive book on the subject that was published earlier in the year and which should, hopefully,  bring them up to speed.

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