Conflagrationary Fate

Head down to Charing Cross tube station and then stroll along the Strand to get to Somerset House, the rather elegant Neo-Classical Georgian construction that was originally home to its eponymous Duke; before more recently housing the Government’s registry of births, deaths and marriages; then becoming the HQ of the Inland Revenue; and now is the site not just of the Courtauld Gallery but also an assortment of other unconnected temporary exhibition spaces.  Currently the Courtauld is closed while it undergoes some kind of internal refurbishment work although, since the building is ancient and must be listed and under all kinds of restrictions as to the kind of renovations that can be carried out, presumably when it does finally re-emerge from the cocoon, its metamorphosis will be relatively minimalistic.  Anyway, let’s hope so.  And let’s also hope that it doesn’t burn down in the meantime, which seems to be the sad conflagrationary fate that befalls too many well-loved old buildings when the authorities decide to get the cowboys in to tart them up – Windsor Castle, Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, Notre Dame, all come to mind.

As for the rest of the temporary display spaces that form the other three wings edging the courtyard of Somerset House, these consist of relatively narrow central corridors with suites of rooms pairing off on either side – an enfiladed arrangement that can be somewhat cramped and awkward and, for those of us more used to examining artistic items within the sterile uncluttered conditions of the standard Modernist white cube showroom, not always the most comfortable or satisfactory of viewing spaces.  And I have to say that I think maybe it’s the consequential aspects of the installation, presentation and curation process having to take place under these less than ideal conditions that contributes to making Get Up, Stand Up Now – the current exhibition filling half a dozen rooms of the West Wing Galleries – all a bit of an unsatisfying, unstructured jumble of a show.  Which is not to criticise any of the individual artworks, which are fine as far as they go – there are certainly plenty of interesting individual pieces to look at.  It’s just something about the way that everything’s been brought together and displayed that seems to me to diminish the cumulative impact and so make the exhibition experience as a whole somewhat less than I imagine that the sum of its individual parts might otherwise have been.

So, what’s the exhibition all about?  Well, as perhaps suggested by the Bob Marley lyric title, the show is billed as ‘a celebration of the past 50 years of Black creativity in Britain’ with the curator Zak Ove having selected over 100 artists ‘who have played a significant role in shaping the cultural landscape of today’.  And there are indeed a multiplicity of paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs as well as assorted accompanying ephemera all aiming to reflect iterations of the British Black experience.  But then this experience is evidently so varied and multi-faceted, and has evolved so much over the past half century, that there is simply no obvious way to shape it into any kind of neat and tidy narrative thread.  I suppose ordering works with chronological consistency might have helped but, clearly, the decision was made not to go down that route.  With no other sensibly structured story to tell, however, the result ends up as a sort of a blur of competing visual inputs which combine into a clamour of conflicting considerations, all in danger of cancelling each other out.

Ok, so separate rooms have been given thematic headings – Motherland, Masquerade, Mothership and so on – but these seem to me to be arbitrary, vague and not really very helpful, and anyway the visitor is left constantly shifting aesthetical focus between works covering a whole gamut of different diverse artistical genres.  So, there are examples of painterly abstraction, portraiture, Post-Modern in-jokes, socio-political polemics, craft ceramics, historical archival material, film clips, photographic reportage (like Vanley Burke‘s Skegness daytrippers above) and just about everything else in between.  And while all of this may help to confirm the wide eclectical range of Black artistic interests and modes of expression, I’m not sure that it does very much else.  Of course, it’s interesting to be reminded of works by some of the more successful names in Black art history like Aubrey Williams (see above) and Denzil Forrester – and especially those like David A Bailey MBE, Sonia Boyce OBE RA and Lubaina Himid CBE RA (and Turner Prize Winner), who have grown from radical young tyros into respectable establishment figureheads with names now littered with the letters that acknowledge their deservedly esteemed status.

It’s also enlightening to see so much strong work from a slightly younger generation of artists who I hadn’t come across before – of these, I particularly liked Richard Mark Rawlin’s Empowerment (see above) and Nari Ward’s Canned Smiles (see below).  Although, jamming everyone together is, I think, a mistake and I can’t really see the curatorial point being made by sticking up, say, one very small painting by Chris Ofili CBE or one large looming photograph by Yinka Shonibare CBE RA (parodying an Andy Warhol pose, see above) or sprinkling quite so many photographs by Horace Ove CBE (the curator’s famous film-maker father) throughout the exhibition.  Thirty or so years ago my old friend Eddie (now Professor) Chambers, the great chronicler and theorist on the history and meaning of Black British art, used to bemoan the proliferation of groups shows to the exclusion of more substantial one or two-person exhibitions   And I think he’s still right and that instead of this somewhat scatter gun celebration it might have been rather more worthwhile to have selected far fewer artists but then allowed them to reveal their own artistic stories in much greater depth.

I suppose one final point worth making is that while the term Black art and artist has been applied to this exhibition and these exhibitors, all the artists included in the show are, in fact, of Afro-Caribbean heritage whereas, art historically, the term Black Art has also included the work of artists from Asian backgrounds (and again I would refer to Professor Chambers and his truly definitive book Black Artists in British Art as well as the just recently published The Place is Here by Nick Aikens & Elizabeth Robles, a review of the work of Black artists in 1980s Britain that is destined to become the essential authoritative guide to, and record of, that most interesting and extraordinary period of social and artistic change).  To start to try to redefine the term now in a new, exclusionary manner seems somewhat misconceived.  Although, speaking as a very pallid representative of the Caucasian chalky circle, and one as yet unhonoured by any government gongs or other ennobling baubles, I’m happy to defer in these matters to those more qualified than myself.

On which obsequiously deferential note I depart to go and look at another group exhibition – the Summer Show at the Royal Academy.  And having already expressed my severe doubts about exhibitions that crowd together artworks of such clashing stylistic incongruence, I soon realise that maybe this wasn’t quite such a good choice of exhibition to go and see next.  Except, perhaps, that nobody attends this annual jamboree expecting to gain any great inspiration or profound insights or learn anything very much at all about art, other than that there are a staggeringly large number of artists, amateur artists, would-be artists, artists manqué and any number of drawers, daubers, dabblers and Sunday painters out there all churning out an unending stream of…of…stuff to look at.  Around about 1,500 works are displayed in the current exhibition of which about half are from Royal Academicians with the rest chosen from the 15,000 or so people who enter the open submission competition.  And, I suppose, the end result is a sort of bell curve distribution with a handful – maybe two handfuls – of pieces that warrant a second look and a similar number that one wishes one had never seen at all, and a great overwhelming swathe of stuff that – especially when it’s all mixed up together – is the equivalent of designer wall paper that quickly blends together into a porridge of…of…stuff to look at.

As usual, there are a couple of curatorial gimmicks to watch out for, most notably the opening room which is entirely given over to artworks pertaining to the animal kingdom, creating a menagerie of fantastical beasts that combine to create a charming and amusing opening gambit that hopefully won’t get repeated next year.  And then there are the rest of the galleries that seem to have been hung with a bit more care than usual, inasmuch as most of the paintings seem to have been deliberately lined up into a kind of specifically regimented grid pattern which, I confess, appeals to my own personal sense of neurotic orderliness although, since the styles and contents of the actual works are so consistently varied, I’m not sure that this presentational quirk really has much curatorial consequence.  Still, hats off to Jock McFadyen, this year’s overall director of operations, for wrestling the octopus and achieving what I think cane be reasonably considered as a respectable draw.

As with previous shows, there are plenty of recognisable charactersistic works from plenty of recognisable characters – Michael Craig-Martin, Antony Gormley, Eileen Cooper, Lisa Milroy, Frank Bowling, Ian Davenport, Joe Tilson, Allen Jones, Paula Rego, Nigel O’Neill were just a very few of the ones that I managed to spot.  And perhaps the fact that all of them have such distinctive individualistic styles reconfirms the need for aspiring young artists to find their own suitably individualistic signature style or brand and then stick with it.  As for those that were new to me, I quite liked Caroline Halliday’s Dinner’s Ready (see above), Jane Jobling’s New Tropic wire sculpture and Lee Maelzer’s Large Table (see below).

And so, finally on to another impressive artistic endeavour that has joined the rosta of annual entertainments organised to distract and amuse those of us who set our clocks by an ever more crowded cultural calendar of events.  Yes, it’s time again to examine this year’s Serpentine Pavillion, an interestingly pangolinic structure of slate roofing tiles balanced on piloti poles and a chicken wire lattice framework, all of which comes courtesy of the Japanese architectural practice of Junya Ishigami.  And, since I can confirm that it provides the requisite amount of shade on today’s stiflingly sunny day, I think its happy combination of form and function can be judged to be a positive success.

Meanwhile, inside the Serpentine Gallery is a show of work by Faith Ringgold, a Black artist activist whose works reference the continuing story of social inequalities and racial tensions in North America.  And they’re undoubtedly all very striking and impressive.  But what a terrible shame that the Serpentine couldn’t have featured work by a couple of Black British artists.  After all, if nothing else, the Somerset House exhibition certainly confirms that there is no shortage of strong contenders from which to make a selection.  Hopefully the Serpentine directors will go along and pay a visit before they start planning their programme for next year.

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