I confess straight away that I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to spend on this exhibition. It has a split location, the new building of the South London gallery being located across the main road. Most people will do as I did, and encounter the room in the main gallery space first. Short of time, I had already decided to concentrate on paintings, 2D pieces and sculpture, static work rather than the durational pieces. The main room had many large-scale works to appreciate and interrogate.
I was immediately struck by how many of these were influenced by illustration and comic work. In my art school experience, as an MA Printmaking graduate if someone said of your printmaking that it was ‘illustrative’ that was a negative comment. You wanted to avoid this label, which was used to dismiss the purpose of your work.
Yet many works in this year’s fine artist paintings self-consciously modelled themselves on techniques developed in illustration. Louis Bennett’s ‘The Touch of That Vapour, the Inhaling of Its Pungent Wisps, 2017’ references steampunk, gothic and political satire, with words incorporated into its composition in the manner of a graphic strip. ‘Ghosts’ by Francisco Rodriguez was arranged in panels that suggested a page in a comic book. An older kind of book illustration was referenced in the four-piece work by Yuko Obe, silkscreen prints which echoed alchemical sixteenth-century European book diagrams. This was appropriate for the subject, the ‘Interconnectivity of Life’. It brought into this flat, twentieth-century medium the style and subject of early modern woodcuts. By using photographs of trees, urban streets, illustrations, clocks, Obe was bringing together the elements of our world in an alchemy that has relevance today. For me, it was a thoughtful and well-achieved piece.
Rebecca Harper’s Stouping impressed me with its painterliness, the use of canvas, with thin oils behaving like watercolours using the substrate. I often am unhappy with paintings that look too much as if they have taken their starting material from photographs, but this work was an exception. Mainly because it challenged me. I did not know how much was real, how much was put together, and what was going on. Figures were looking off from the canvas away from the action. I could not see what they were looking at, but it was not the beautiful scenery or the amazing pool. It was curious. Challenging. I’m still thinking about what Harper meant by this scene, how much is imaginary in the way it is constructed. Even the word, I have no idea what it means after looking it up. What is ‘stouping’? Perhaps there is a simple meaning of which I am unaware. I found this a very sophisticated picture in so many ways. It even feels like a comment on holiday pictures, on Hockney, on Gauguin, with the brightly coloured towel and the tropical looking umbrellas in the foreground. It was my personal choice among the paintings if I could have bought one picture to live with forever.
I enjoyed the playful use of materials in Maïa Régis, ‘Run Devil Run’, 2017. She has combined synthetic hair extensions, oil paint, varnish, plaster and haematite pigment and the image is evocative too. What is the gun doing on the table? And the bucket with Lax written on it. I did not immediately notice the small figure to the left of the main woman. Again this is a picture that uses storytelling for its power. Jack Burton’s ‘Hotel, Night Shop, The Smell of Fig Trees’ uses black and white line drawings of plants, a hand smoking stuck on the plain image of a hotel bathroom. It is an example of an image which uses the mixed media approach of contemporary illustration and to suggest a story and to convey a narrative concerning the inner world of the artist or the protagonist who may be standing in front of that sink, looking into that mirror. The protagonist who is absent in representation of (his) body (I felt he was male) but present, suggested.
Across the road in the recently opened Fire Station, on the second floor, in a corner, I came across the sculpture that impressed me most. A large collection of terracotta eggs, arranged as in a hatchery or a commercial production of eggs for mass use, trays and trays of these terracotta eggs stacked up, suggested the scale of the terracotta soldiers but in miniature. Maybe these eggs could each hatch a terracotta soldier? But these eggs were also portraits of women, beautiful women, young women with long necks peering out of the pale green egg boxes, waiting to be called upon, presumably cast using slip moulding, with care. Vivian Troya has called her work in ceramic, acrylic and metal simply ‘Hatchery’. Again it allows the imagination to work, considering the purpose of these egg-heads and the role of women in society. There is something sinister, but also something beautiful and something optimistic about these latent spirits. What is to come? Is it a comment on what we know, or hope? Again this is an artist whose work has stayed with me and made me think.
So many works on which to comment, but so many I didn’t see. Even if I had not been short of time, I could not have viewed all the video works. I did not count up how long they were but glanced quickly at some of the timings. One was 40 minutes. To see them all in their entirety would have taken hours. I briefly considered doing the maths. I do not enjoy watching videos in galleries usually, although I do. I do not enjoy standing in front of a screen with headphones on watching art video, although I do. I have to confess that this day, I was quite pleased to have the excuse of only a short space of time to take in this exhibition and to leave that lengthy task of appreciation to other gallery visitors.
Selected artists for Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2018 are: Agil Abdullayev, Kobby Adi, Ayo Akingbade, Annie-Marie Akussah, Chris Alton, Louis Bennett, Jack Burton, Christian Noelle Charles, Kara Chin, Faye Claridge, Jack Fawdry Tatham, Emma Fineman, Rhona Foster, Deme Georghiou, William Glass, Carrie Grainger, Madelynn Mae Green, Habib Hajallie, Camilla Hanney, Rebecca Harper, Sam Henty, Mimi Hope, Richard Ayodeji Ikhide, FC Izaac, Osian Jenaer, Patrick H. Jones, Jessica Jordan-Wrench, Marianne Keating, Gareth Kemp, Yushi Li, Shao-Jie Lin, Heidi Maribut, Alexi Marshall, Jocelyn McGregor, Holly McLean, Paula Morison, Yuko Obe, Kamile Ofoeme, Panicattack Duo, Jack Pell, Ralph Pritchard, Anna Reading, Maïa Régis, Bella Riza, Francisco Rodriguez, Janet Sainsbury, Mohammed Sami, Antonia Showering, Shy Bairns, Wal Slzr, Tom Smith, Alcaeus Spyrou, George Stamenov, Viviana Troya, Rosa Johan Uddoh, Tom Waring and Yanghwa.
Part 2 Published 19 December
How do you judge a piece of work, the quality of an artist at a mixed show of new work, fresh from art school?
It’s a minefield for the viewer. You can’t help thinking, here I am in this fantastic opportunity to discover something that will blow me away. To discover an artist that will blow me away. As a reviewer, I think to myself maybe I will make a difference in an artist’s career. The thought takes your breath away. It makes this experience more weighted than most exhibitions.
I’m feeling the responsibility and the excitement as I skirt around the show. I haven’t got much time today due to the pressure of outside commitments, and I’m almost breathless as I whip around the work. I feel guilty. There are videos, there are durational performances. How can I give them enough attention? The truth is, I can’t. So, in the main room of the two spaces used for the show by the South London Gallery, I stand in front of a large canvas. I put myself in a meditative space, let the thoughts and feelings flood through as I look at acrylic on canvas, a nod to the American desert. The artist is summoning up iconic qualities that I too associate with the American desert. It makes sense to me although I have never been there. It is my idea of a New Mexican desert night. Peopleless, with a faceless owl, a campfire, a cactus a starry sea. All the iconic, simplified representations of this magical night have been taken and broken down and separated and rearranged using compositional tricks. It’s a work that owes much to the process of silk screen and the works that silk screen has made. I’m reminded of the work of Oli Epp, who also works in flat layers although with more humorous, urban content.
As I stand looking at ‘Starry Night // Campfire Light’ by Gareth Kemp I wonder. It’s an appropriate thing to do in front of a campfire picture, wonder. Stare at the stars. Stare at the sky. Stare into the flames, the shadows of the cactus. I appreciate the work. I think I can see why the judges have chosen this piece. And I realise, the judges, whoever they are (I don’t know) are peering over my shoulder. I can’t help thinking about them. They’re elephants in the room. Why have they chosen these pieces? I’m trying to see with their eyes. My mind’s eye and their imagined mind eyes, judging are, in a way, one and the same.
I think back to how excitedly I packed up my own work when shortlisted for Bloomberg New Contemporaries. I never made it to the final show. After that, a little sad for my ambitious, hopeful prints, I never went to a BNC exhibition. Not really out of sour grapes, I like to think, but I went to other places, other shows. I’m here today because Paul Carter Robinson, my editor at Artlyst invited me to do a roundup which you can read in that magazine if you’re curious. But this experience is making me confront myself as an artist as well as a reviewer.
I’m also asking, what does Bloomberg New Contemporaries do for an artist? Well, so much. For me, it was even the experience of having my large framed work wrapped and delivered professionally for the submission process. I still use the bubble wrap with pride when I have to install the same large frames for one show or another. An exhibition like this is part of what an artist has to do. It’s growing up. And it’s more than being selected and hung alongside your contemporaries. It’s more than the finger pointing to you out of the darkness, like Michaelangelo’s god or Daumier’s accusing lawyers, shouting or whispering, ‘It’s you. You’re the one. You’re the next Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk or whoever you have read about in the newspapers.
For an exhibition like this, it’s clear that scale helps. If you’re the biggest piece in the room, you naturally acquire a lot of attention. But it’s also where and how it’s hung. Curating this must be a nightmare, and many compromises have happened along the way. I feel I want to criticise placement and lighting, but when I think about it, I realise that it’s not, to put it mildly, an easy job. How do you get so many works to look well? The space isn’t easy as apart from this central room there are also two rooms in the Fire Station, the new building of the South London Gallery. For those, you have to cross the busy road. I wonder how many people make it to the second building.
I stand and take in another painting. Oil on canvas. Janet Sainsbury’s ‘Gleam’. It’s a very assured portrait, nude figures smoking. Has all the nods to art school to set me off thinking about life studies through history and all the nods to book covers of pulp fiction to help me think about those as well. This would make, it’s true, a brilliant book cover. It suggests a lot of inner life and relationships. It’s a novel unwritten. There are three faces. An older confident man, his red hand holding a cigar. A young woman looking vacantly to the side at the front of the painting, her lipstick making her seem lightly like a femme fatale, and a blue-headed older woman appearing in the middle at the base of the painting. It’s like a painting of ghosts. Is it a painting of ghosts? Are the blue haired older couple really there? Is it actually just the woman who is thinking about a departed family? Why are they naked? And is that really a cigarette the woman is holding? It could almost be a paintbrush. It looks like one of those Chinese calligraphy brushes I have on my desk. And she could be the artist. Is it a self-portrait of the artist’s inner thoughts.
I really don’t know what is going on. I want to know more, but at a show with so many possibilities, it’s overwhelming. I just have a quick window into worlds beyond what I see. I see art. I see artists. The portals are open. The journey is forever.
Words: Jude Cowan Montague Top Photo: Installation view: Bloomberg New Contemporaries, South London Gallery, 2018. Photo: Andy Stagg.
Bloomberg New Contemporaries @ South London Gallery Until 24 FEB 2019