Although much of London seems to be opening up now, including many of the large gallery and museum spaces (Tate just reopened this week), many of us are still choosing to (or having to) stay away from potentially crowded areas or indoor public spaces at the moment.
For this reason, I’m grateful for some smaller exhibitions in galleries and spaces where it’s possible to socially distance. The first real-life exhibition I’ve been to since March was The Art Prize, which is being held at the offices of Ashurst law firm in Spitalfields. Thanks to the fact that this is held in the entrance and lobby of a workplace, there are safety measures in place to ensure social distancing and there were only a few people passing through. If you go on a weekend day, there is also much less likelihood of many other people being there at the same time.
The Art Prize is held annually and is open to emerging artists working in any medium. I was initially unsure how much I would enjoy seeing art in such a corporate space. I’ve seen art in office spaces before and the décor and atmosphere can often strip artworks of their meaning, making them flat and lifeless. This may be more down to the choice of art shown in these spaces, than the spaces themselves as work shown for The Art Prize was lively and felt more as if it was in dialogue with the space, than being suppressed by it.
One of the first pieces we saw and loved was Grace Su’s large painting in the first area. The painting was in muted tones and at a first glance, not looking with any real concentration, I thought that this was a figurative painting of a woman in a bed and someone sitting at a table -so far, so Lucian Freud. Looking again, I noticed the odd split panes and framing of the images. Looking closer still, my eye was drawn to what was happening at the very top of the piece – a woman, drowning in spaghetti! Was this the figure who was sitting at the table? It was clear that there was all sorts of hidden narrative in this work. Reading the text about Grace, I also discovered that “Her representation of women often acts as a re-appropriation of historical paintings – produced by men. In re-appropriating female images from a perspective of art history, her work resonates with the context of the ‘personal and historical’” which of course makes me love her work even more!
I particularly enjoyed the second area in the exhibition. Here, a very colourful and exuberant selection of work transformed a waiting area. A large work by artist Donal Sturt (you can read an interview with him here) was an eye catching piece, for its use of childlike drawing and lettering. It looks as though a bunch of small children had been let loose on the canvas with paint – the kind of art that would produce the (literal) comment “my 2 year old could have done that” – although Donal’s tool being retro computer program MS Paint adds another dimension to the piece, and again, an interesting piece to see in a modern office space.
Another work which I think interacted particularly well with its unusual setting was Stefan J Schaffield’s piece ‘Sculptural Skin’. This was placed in a nook with a wire mesh backing (I’m guessing this is an interior design feature to let more light into the space). Seen from one side, the piece looked framed by the nook, from the other side, it was imprisoned. Reading later about Stefan’s practice exploring ideas of vulnerability and fragmentation, I think the ‘cage’ element added by the placing of this work really works and adds to his intention.
I really enjoyed so many of the works in this great exhibition, and loved the fact that colour was key in many of the works I saw. In the final room, I loved Pippa El-Khadi Brown’s piece Takeaway? – a huge, expressive painting, where I have no idea what’s going on, but with such attention to detail like the chessboard and pot plant. What’s not to love?
Another artist whose use of colour is what drew me in, but in a very different way, is Rachel Rodrigues. In her work, the subject was very clear – ‘The Sitting Room in Summer’ showed a family group posed for a portrait. But, the colour is slightly ‘odd’ – everything seems a bit red. Reading about her work, I find that she sees colour as a psychological tool to offer greater depth of meaning. Looking at more of her work online, these wonderful, lush, odd, jarring colours are a staple element in her painting.
Finally, I want to mention Shannon Alonzo’s work which “embodies the exploration of Caribbean diaspora identity, specifically, the tension created through historical omission and the desire to re-imagine a collective sense of self.” Her piece ‘Development of Nonconformity’ drew me in as it is a contemporary take on historical scientific drawings. A close up geological cross-section reveals tools/weapons and skulls and bones. For me, it asks me to consider who I may be walking over, ignoring violence to, or ignoring the deaths of in my history or geography, and therefore my present existence.
I really look forward to seeing more from these artists – crossing fingers for lots of positive feedback for all of them on this great exhibition!