Somehow I seem to have pulled a muscle, twisted a ligament, ripped a cartilage or otherwise mangled one of those important bits of connective gristle that hold the bones and muscles together. Consequently, my right leg doesn’t seem to be working as smoothly as it’s meant to according to the owner’s manual and, in fact, every time my foot hits the pavement I get a decidedly unpleasant twinge racing up the neural superhighway telling my brain that something is amiss. I’ve no idea how I caused the damage to be done and it’s definitely more than just a little bit annoying to be so debilitated, especially when I take such great care to avoid all those dangerous forms of exercise and the other stresses and strains of physical exertions that are, after all, the main causes of such perfidious and unnecessary self-harm. Anyway, regardless of the cause, I’m now having to hobble along with an inelegant gait quite unsuited to my normal characteristic demeanour of suave flaneuristic boulevardiering and I’m sorely tempted just to sit at home reclining on the chaise longue, foot held aloft on an Ottoman pouffe. Then again, the perambulatory pain is bearable and Bermans are made of stern stuff so, in the interests of furthering critical artistic debate, I decide to press on. And while I won’t be able to proceed along the streets and avenues of the great metropolis at my usual Olympian pace, I trust the narrative flow of my discourse will be unaffected by my pedal incumbrance and remain as syntactically smooth and racily readable as ever.
So, having set the scene, it’s time for me to limp up the stairs at Bond Street tube station and slowly lurch my way towards today’s first stop at the Parafin gallery. Now, here is a space that’s not one of my regular haunts but, nevertheless, whenever I have visited over the past few years I’ve always been impressed by the sensible seriousness and thoughtful professionalism of the displays held therein. I suppose the main remit of the gallery is to focus on the aesthetic considerations of contemporary Conceptualism, albeit with an occasional nod back to the historical roots of the movement (as with the interesting survey held a few months ago of some of the earlier works of Tim Head). Of course, those who like their art to consist only of oily representational images of figurative exactitude or colourful abstracted revelations of expressionistic self-absorption will find little to entertain here but for anyone with a taste for the more felicitous cerebral diversions of artistic investigation then the space is definitely worth a visit.
Before getting down to specifics I suppose it’s worth a little discursive rumination on the general nature of the Conceptual Art that Parafin promotes, especially since it’s become the sort of default lingua franca style of so much of contemporary creativity. As for the reasons for this popular ubiquity, well, cynics would perhaps argue that it’s the style of choice for those who wish to self-define as artists but who have none of the traditional craft skills that were once considered the essential requirements of the profession. And it’s quite true that there’s no need for the Conceptualist to have any particular facility for draftsmanship; nor any need to be able to construct reasonable representational likenesses of people, objects, or scenes; nor yet even any desire to create abstracted renderings of emotional states or metaphysical maunderings. The reason being that the currency of Conceptualism is that of the idea and that while (to paraphrase Marx) artists in the past have only replicated versions of the world in various ways; the point, for the Conceptualist, is to philosophise about it. The problem with this perhaps is that Conceptual capital is so very easily devalued since the skill to accurately wield pen, brush, chisel or mallet is limited to a small minority of talented individuals, while the ability to have ideas is available to just about every person on the planet. Which is another way of saying that while there’s an awful lot of art produced under the guise of Conceptualism, very little of it is very good…begging the question as to what actually is good in this particular context.
As with any other aesthetic assessment, defining strict qualitative criteria is not at all easy and there’s never going to be any universal consensus but I suppose what I’m personally looking for in a work of Conceptual Art is some kind of intelligent intellectual novelty or cerebral teasing; something that ideally sparks a cascade of previously unconsidered but related thoughts; something that perhaps strikes some kind of resonant chord of contemporaneity; or plants a seed of a thought that subsequently results in later intermittent recurrent reviewings and reimaginings. Ideally the work should also be presented in a form that carries within it a certain understated elegance, subtlety and flair. What I definitely don’t want to see is anything that’s too tediously arcane, obscure, meaningless, simplistic or dull; nor any trite truisms, glib didactics or clumsy humour.
As for the current offerings at Parafin, Rebecca Partridge has curated a show involving her work plus that of four other colleagues and if none of the individual items are absolute, mind-warping whizz-bang stunners just about all the pieces are diverting enough to warrant some reasonably carefully considered ponderment. I think the pieces that I liked best were from Katie Patterson – both her gnomic wall texts and, more particularly, the long string of lightbulbs dangling from the gallery rafters. The latter being no mere piece of fancy interior décor but an illuminating quasi-scientific illustration whereby the relative luminosity of each of the light filaments of the gallery display matches those of the main stars in the actual constellation of Ara that can be seen in the night sky above us all. What adds to the interest is that apparently the artist has gone to the trouble of constructing similar luminescent festoons for each of the other 79 star systems in our galaxy. And I confess that I think there’s something rather appealing about the prettiness and pointlessness of this kind of gestural effort and imagery which I find cosy and comforting – although I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to discover another viewer who found it equally irksome and irritating. Incidentally the larger lit-up sphere at the base of the picture below – a 3-D printed version of some kind of global phenomenon – is a separate work by Martin John Cannanan,
Elsewhere, Richard T Walker’s video showing the recumbent artist ruminating in the desert; Simon Faithfull’s photos of tree climbing round a wadi; and Partridge’s own sequential series of skyscape studies continue the theme of existential romanticism or the sublimity of loneliness, or something like that. I have to admit that I’ve grabbed these phrases and pulled them out of context from the gallery leaflet which, with its talk about the human condition and meta-narratives, simultaneity and flux starts to make my leg twitch indicating that it’s time to head for the exit.
Next stop is Spruth Magers for the latest series of works by Cindy Sherman. And here’s an artist who really did think up one of those truly great conceptual zinger ideas at the start of her career forty-odd years ago. Untitled Film Stills was a series of small black and white photos showing the artist dressed up as an actress in poses that suggested promo shots from various noirist B-movie scenes and situations. Not only did the pictures look neat in themselves, they also were open to a whole library full of intellectual analyses and theorising from all manner of hot topical perspectives around feminism, the politics of identity, the falsity of media constructions and so on and on and on. As such, the works gained great professional and public acclaim and were eagerly sought after by both private collectors and public institutions which must be every young artists dream. But perhaps it’s also something of a curse as well since Sherman has subsequently felt obliged to spend her whole ensuing career working and reworking over and over again the same basic idea.
The latest version is a sequence of shots that show the artist once again getting out her makeup kit and rummaging around the dressing up box to reappear as various movie stars from the Hollywood of the ‘20s and ‘30s. And again, the photographs look great, both beguiling and slightly bizarre and I’m sure will be instantly snapped up by collectors who want one of those instantly recognisable iconic images from the famous brand Sherman.