Wednesday, 17 December 2014

We are very disappointed, but does it matter?

Who is this for?  The words ‘We’re all very disappointed’ blazing through my mind as the result of Alice Hartley’s gigantic printed wall montage in bold black text amid the spattering painted mark making on the gallery walls of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.   

Alice Hartley 'We're all very disappointed' (2013)
Even if it is intended to be a political reproach it is nonetheless a brave, confrontational statement to make in what is a selected group show of recent art school graduates work. It sets a certain expectation and one that isn't particularly optimistic. Perhaps that is what the selectors intended as like an itch I couldn’t scratch its rebuke somewhat haunted me as I contemplated both the validity of this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries as a whole and my place as ‘the audience’ within it. Was I really disappointed? In some ways, yes. Did it matter if I was? Does art exist merely for some sort of approval or recognition? Without response does it cease to exist as art? And just how reflective of current art education was all of this? These were arguably all very valid questions that I loftily tried to ignore in an attempt to engage with the work, but often found myself wondering back to because on the whole these thoughts were only remotely more interesting than that of than much of the work on show.

Now in its 65th year the Bloomberg New Contemporaries is the UK’s annual ’barometer of contemporary art practice’ and offers a teaser into the work of emerging artists from art school graduates of the past year. Therein already lies a potential flaw in not being able to see a body of work or practice of the chosen artists instead being shown a selected few works and expected to understand the whole. Still, there are as always, glimmerings of potential to be excited about of which I will go on to mention and as an introduction to contemporary art it is healthy to see there is still such variety in discipline from painting, drawing, mixed media, sculpture and of course film (even if it is largely dominated by film this year). Despite my criticism the prestige and selection of this year’s 55 chosen artists from 1,400 entries should not to be downplayed and both adds to expectation of how the work is received but is also commendable in highlighting emerging artists work and creating that debate/platform in which to generate more exposure of fresh talent.
Emily Motto 'A bodily capacity (the endeavour of stuff on a frame) Steel mesh, copper, foam floats, yarn, rope, wool, homemade playdough (2012)
It is interesting to try and spot the themes between this year’s chosen artists as it reveals an insight into what some of the concerns and interests of our time are. Worryingly for this year's generation, it's all a bit too serious, too cynical. Where themes do occur, they range from the directly political such as Henry Hussey’s tabloid-like Marxist mixed-media wall tapestries and Maco Godoy’s ‘Claiming  the Echo’film piece which documents a choir singing the protests made at  public demonstrations since the recent financial collapse to slightly broader themes of consumerism, the food industry and affects of gluttony on the human form found in works such as Emily Motto’s ‘A bodily capacity’ (pictured above) which is like an Arte Povera self oozing, self expanding and changing sculpture which appears to be bursting out of its wire mesh container and the more literal depictions of the human form as a result of over consumption and elsewhere in Adam Wallace’s collage and oil paint creations  fleshy man/woman machine hybrids are painted directly onto the on cardboard synonymous of a throw-away society. In two more film based works, MKLK’s ‘Man Eater’ as the title suggests sees its female protagonist performing a ceremonial-like dance, revealing and concealing under a gown of what appears to be VHS tape that is either swamping or perhaps protecting its wearer (a comment on the commodification of the human form?) and Lucy Beech’s ‘Cannibals’ follows a gathering of a group of women where it is uncertain if they are meeting for some weird version of a Tupperware party or something more sinister.

Miroslav Pomichal 'Mismatched Couple' Oil on canvas, carved wood, paint (2013)
Yussef Hu’s ‘Resting on a sharp point’ for me was one of the most engaging film works, possibly because it was one of the most shocking as it also deals with a similar theme of consumption in a performance piece by the artist who spears hung sacks of balloons containing mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup and brown sauce their poured contents being collected into plastic buckets eventually consumed by the artist in their mixed state, much to the horror of the onlookers in the film (the artist himself fighting back physically retching). I have to admit I thought it was paint for the majority of the film thinking the piece shared similarities with action painting. And it was incredibly gruelling but oddly compelling to watch in an almost statistically fascinating and repulsive way. After being sufficiently underwhelmed it was good to 'feel' something.

There were some remarkable surfaces to be found too in Yi Dai’s ‘Nocturne’ series where hair and tights are stretched over a mirror and acrylic painted panel creating an optical illusion-type of effect whilst in Athena Papadopoulos’s (see below) mixed media work all manner of assorted stains and fragmented layers made up a rich and intriguing surfaces that reminded me of a softer version of a Tapies painting and in Deborah Westmancoat’s ‘Mountain’ (see below) found rusted surfaces are responded to with mark making combined with dynamic found shapes that draw your attention to notice the subtle details and patina in the work. It is even more positive and important to note that she is the first from the college I studied at to be represented in this prize, along with three (I think I counted correctly) other artists from art schools in the South West which regardless of my personal opinion of their work is a good start for more representation of artists in our region.
Deborah Westmancoat 'Mountain' Metal plate, rivets, charcoal, pencil on found surface (2012)
The Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the ICA London. (from left to right) Adam Wallace 'Transfat' (2013) and 'Skin-Flick (2014), Ian Tricker 'Gravity II' (2013), Xiao-Yang Li 'Woman and Beast' (2013)

Athena Papadopoulos 'Acting Single, Drinking Doubles (Belladonna Muse)' Pepto-Bismol, Berocca, shoe polish, oil stick, charcoal, pencil crayon, French's mustard, rust, image transfers, thread, glue, napkins, pillowcase, jersey cotton on canvas. (2014) 
Painting on the whole as with sculpture wasn’t particularly exciting for me this year, with Miroslav’s ‘Mismatched Couple’ (pictured above) being pretty punchy and bold but in doing so not having much else to say. Another painter, Edward Hill with a portrait of a bee keeper, ‘Bee Night’ is quite elegantly and subtly painted and a little reminiscent of a Peter Doig or Marlene Dumas and is probably my favourite painting of the show, but unlike their work and out of context of the rest of Hill's work it was  hard to grasp if it was anything other than 'something of nothing'. Similarly sculptures made from sand and ones that mimicked a replica between an ancient and modern hybrid were good but didn't leave a lot to the imagination. I think it points to the fact of my real frustration or disappointment from this year's BNC came from the lack of anything of real resonance, or  qualities that will make the work more memorable. Yes there was a good variety of work, but none of it felt particularly 'heart-felt', not the best choice of words but I couldn't think of a better way of saying that a lot of the work felt very self conscious.
Personally I’m always under the impression that if you really want a taste of ‘current contemporary emerging  arts  practice’ then the best place to find it has always been in art school’s at private views, exhibitions and open days. The majority often being radically under publicised and consequently under-attended for what they deserve, as it is here where you discover the truly wacky, sometimes unpolished potential and innovativeness amidst the good, the bad and the ugly. Art School exhibitions have an unbiased integrity to them that lets the viewer decide what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art rather than being presented a selected sample of what a chosen few think and in the case of this year’s BNC, the biasness of the selection panel, I feel leaves it a little flat in terms of innovation, difference and joyousness. If I hadn’t seen any previous BNC then I don’t think I would be quite so discerning but perhaps every graduating generation of artists remembers their generation of BNC as being the best or the most enjoyable. I first came across the prize in 2006 at the Liverpool Biennial, at the start of my degree and subsequently followed its progress ever since. That was a fantastic year, a staircase carved into a birthday candle, massive woodcuts, kinetic sculptures, vandalised bins, plaster covered newspapers, miniature sculptures inside matchboxes, satirical yellow pages. 2010 also stands out as a particularly good exhibition with artists such as Greta Alfaro, Darren Harvey-Regan and Sam Knowles being three favourites from that year. Without sounding terribly older than I may already be, those years felt so much more ambitious and not trying to be what I’d call ‘too clever’. On the whole the work felt it much less self-aware and more concerned with its own existence as a piece of art made by someone trying to figure something out. I have the impression that more and more work produced by art school students is stifled by an awareness of the viewer, the audience, the gallery and context of the art world which is great on many levels as it shows how well we prepare young artists to place their work in context of the wider world, but it has also meant that the audience sometimes feels like they are having to second-guess the real intention behind the work and that it operates more like advertising whereby the audience is being knowingly manipulated to a ‘preferred reading’. I still sort of feel art is better when it has open or multiple meanings. 
It is good to see the Bloomberg New Contemporaries still running and whilst I may have been a little disappointed, it’s not to assume that we all would be and therein is worthy of an amount of anyone’s time and attention.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2014 can be seen at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London until the 25th January 2015.

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