Are You Alright? New Art from Britain
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
Feb 1, 2013-March 24, 2013
The last two decades have made arts professionals particularly aware of the tugging trans-Atlantic current that drew the epicenter of the contemporary art world away from New York City and beached it firmly upon the shores of Britain. The late 1980s witnessed the luring of global attention to London with the scent of a young generation of artists making contentious and unapologetic work. Adopting the agency of the New York pedigree while maintaining a distinctive British vernacular, this group of artists was eventually given a three letter stamp of approval: YBA. Though some of the Young British Artists are imbecilic—Tracy Emin’s practice can be profoundly indulgent and Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) diamond and human teeth sculpture demonstrates that all that glisters is not gold—some of the collegiates in this group have had an unmistakable impact on the forthcoming generations of art students, collectors, and seekers.
Anyone who has spent time knob-kneeing around London East’s Hoxton Square, arguably the womb of this previous generation of British artists, knows that Toronto has no reciprocal cultural borough. Happily for Canadians Are You Alright?, currently at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, has transported overseas the clever liminal exploration between contemporary and Modernist art practice currently on offer in the UK. Not since the YBAs has Britain seen such a gregarious flock of art makers, though the spectacle and high production value of the former has been subverted in favour of a return to raw artistic process, mark making, and media exploration. Co-curated by Canadian artist Derek Mainella and British artist Elizabeth Eamer, this group exhibition succinctly delivers the heterogeneous climate of today’s young London.
James Unsworth, an artist known for his scatological inclinations, greets viewers at the door with I Think of Demons (2009), a chromogenic print picturing an orderly yet clumsy pile of disembodied heads and limbs. Sat one atop the other, these slovenly appendages appear to have been constructed out of skin-coloured packing tape. The dimpled, green couch on which the grouping sits is reminiscent of a dill pickle, extending a hand-shake to the food photography still life compositions Irving Penn became known for—his olive on tomato on mozzarella ball marvel comes to mind. The connection might seem superficial but what Penn, and thereafter Unsworth, has manifested through the photographic medium is compelling staging. Presenting I Think of Demons as a photograph instead of a sculptural installation affords its grotesque subject a necessary distance. It is absurd rather than insincere.
As if in reply to Unsworth’s constructed subjects, Harry Burden contributes three portraits to the exhibition: Sterile Anthropomorphic Figure (Boccioni), (Epstein), and (Paolozzi) (2012), respectively. Each named artist is identified by their best known sculpture, the effigy of which is cheekily recreated through a digital assemblage of a domestic cleaning product and an image of the original art work. The likeness between these chimeric bottles of disinfectant and the sculptural feats of the artists memorialized is striking, exposing humans’ willingness to anthropomorphize objects. As digital prints on bleached poster paper, each piece takes on a charming visual patina, alluding to black-and-white advertisements from the 1950s. A refreshing commentary on capitalism and commoditization, these portraits revive the quixotic revolutions emboldened by artists like Epstein, Boccioni, and Paolozzi. Though Burden’s framing of the work in sugar-brown walnut wood does not do the images a service, the artist’s use of the planar divide between viewer and pictorial space shows real promise.
Hung across from Burden’s body of work is a grid of fifty celebrity faces imposing unfathomably twisted expressions on the viewer that imply the darker side of being a custodian of the world’s attention. The maniacal and gluttonous visages displayed here are unpleasant to look at and Dawn Mellor, the artist responsible for the pastel drawings, has missed the mark. Subtler ruminations on the motive factors within our culture are more compelling though, admittedly, movie actors are an unfortunate but prominent one. Christian Boltanski’s portrait grids of Holocaust victims still hearts and arouse intellects more, but both he and Mellor are reaching for the same thing: an interaction with shared cultural existence.
Around the corner of MOCCA’s oft-used moveable walls is a modest selection of works by Elizabeth Eamer—co-curator of the exhibit. It is delightful that she escaped Woody Allen’s habit of starring himself in most of his directorial efforts and her three paintings provide what was being searched for in Mellor’s matrix of faces. Eamer’s employment of uninflected line in Additional Beckoning (2012) is immediately alienating, first and foremost because the succinct stokes that describe the multitude of heads are all abruptly severed, never extending beyond the neck. The termination of these lines translates into a literal cleaving of the heads, contrasting sharply with the pleasing aesthetics of the artist’s painted draughtsmanship to create a paradox that fosters a sinister and anxious feeling in the viewer. Pointing Beckoning Hands feeds this unease further given its arachnid-shaped cluster of hands and bent, multi-directional digitry. A subtle reverence to YBA teacher Michael Craig-Martin, Eamer’s economical paintings transform bodies and hands into a site of otherness that enunciates the relationship between subject and object.
The entrepreneurial nature of projects such as Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas’ The Shop (1993), a two-floor studio and sales shop on Bethnal Green Road, was a propulsive force in the rise of the artist/dealer during the YBA era. Fittingly, Mainella and Eamer’s exhibition is a handsome facsimile of this ambition, though contemporary times have brought the artist/curator to the fore. Are You Alright? is a varied exhibition of work wholly unlike the art Toronto’s emergent generation of artists are making. More than the novelty of the show, however, it is the collusion of historical awareness, present use of media, and the suggestion of things to come that leaves visitors of MOCCA with such a satisfying aftertaste.
Rachel Anne Farquharson is Associate Director of O’Born Contemporary, where she compliments and supports the Director’s creative pursuits. While maintaining this role, Farquharson continues her practice as an essayist and curator. The Tate Britain has published her critical writings on the Gallery’s new acquisitions and a monograph essay relating Brian Adam Douglas’s cut paper images to choreographic revolutionary Pina Bausch was produced by DRAGO in 2011.view all articles from this author