British Art Show 9 finds healing in troubled times

“If my grandmother had been Mexican, it would have been a llama,” Andy Holden observes impassively, with geographical abandon, as he presents a small cat from China to the camera. Winning the Fantasy Prize in the British Art Exhibition 9 – and possibly any show this year – “Cat-tharsis” (2016/21) consists of display cases containing 300 feline figurines collected by Holden’s grandmother and Holden’s own video performance, in which he lovingly unwraps every adornment while giving us a centering moggie-monologue. ‘Cat-tharsis’ is as compelling as it is silly, but when we find out her grandmother’s obsession was sparked by her husband’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease, Holden’s trinkets take on a tender, healing gravity. .

For many of us right now, a little magical thinking wouldn’t hurt. Kitschy kittens might not float your boat, but a whirlwind around the latest iteration of the British Art Show, currently in Wolverhampton, might be just what the doctor ordered.

Held every five years under the auspices of the Hayward Gallery, the British Art Show is the largest traveling exhibition of contemporary art in the UK. Aiming to “open up the work of an extraordinary new group of artists to the widest possible audience”, it was launched last year in Aberdeen and will continue in Manchester and Plymouth.

‘Changing Room II’ (2021) by Helen Cammock © Aberdeen City Council (Art Gallery & Museums Collections)

“Changing Room” by Helen Cammock (2014) © Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London

This ninth edition is the trickiest box office yet. How to express the visual imagination of a nation divided in two by Brexit and then wounded to the bone by a pandemic? And how do you make that phrase relevant in a city like Wolverhampton, where unemployment is nearly 40% higher than the national average and one in three children live in poverty?

The curators’ response is to collect works that both reflect suffering and uphold the values ​​– such as care, redemption and healing – that alleviate it. No one strikes this balance more sensitively than Helen Cammock. Growing up in Wolverhampton in the 1970s, Cammock – co-winner of the Turner Prize in 2019 – has previously worked on the town’s dark history as the constituency of Enoch Powell, author of the infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. , frantically inveighing against immigration, in 1968. Here she updated “Changing Room” – her heartbreaking 2014 video that sings of her Jamaican father, teacher, magistrate and ceramist, in the face of vicious racism – streaming sculptures of animals with the help of his father. original moulds.

Again and again, this show reminds us that repair lies in respecting memory and experience. Described as “electronic music’s answer to Basquiat”, artist and musician Gaika weaves us through “Zemel” (2022), a dark piece in which human faces on digital screens transform into different incarnations, from ancient sculpture to modern man, passing through a spine. -Scary soundtrack of folk songs.

Elaine Mitcheller, ‘[NAMES II] an evocation’ (2019-21) © Courtesy the artist

Installation view of Elaine Mitchener’s[NAMES II] an evocation’ (2019-21) © Aberdeen City Council (Art Gallery & Museums Collections)

Son of a member of the “Windrush generation” who came from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom after the Second World War, Gaika dedicates “Zemel” to “black heroism in general”. The continued evolution of faces operates as a rebuke to the inflexible features of these colonial statues which the Conservative government – ​​which was also responsible for deporting immigrants from Windrush – currently insists they remain in situ in public.

When old-fashioned hierarchies no longer cut the mustard, artists reverse the canon. Simeon Barclay transforms Rodin’s sculpture the age of brass (1877) – beautiful youth, eyes closed in ecstasy – in the sign of the coolest nightclub this side of Studio 54 by layering images of this nubile body in neon and vinyl.

Emblematic of the health of contemporary painting, a gallery devoted to this old-school medium and its sidekick, the printing press, offers some of Wolverhampton’s most innovative images. From Alberta Whittle we have a series of prints of her magician (2021) series. Photographic engravings on copper plate, they show a graceful dancing figure against a fabulous dreamscape of ripples, waves, ridges and reefs. The original ‘pattern’ was an Algonquin man painted in watercolors by a colonial governor in the 16th century and described as a ‘flyer’. A century later, he is re-immortalized in an engraving as a “Native American sorcerer”. To find him here as a “conjurer” is to wonder if the roles have turned. Are we now summoned as inexact fantasies of his desire?

Simeon Barclay, ‘As a Precursor to Folly’ (2021) © Aberdeen City Council (Art Gallery & Museums Collections)

Whittle is one of many artists who straddle the thermals of myth, folklore and the supernatural to rise above the failures of our planet’s imagination. Another is Paul Maheke, who clings to the concept of ghosts as a way to think more creatively about gender identity. Suspended in the center of the gallery, his “drawings” of fabrics bear faces inspired by those guessed by tea leaves and coffee grounds. The faces are made from bleach, so they emanate from the fabric as if rising from our own unconscious. The effect is once strange and familiar, as if secretly we had always known our unstable, invisible inner selves.

Maheke says her work is about “what is absent, what remains unspeakable, what remains invisible”. These hidden elements are expressed through abstraction in the work of Hurvin Anderson. One of Britain’s most electrifying painters, here he offers four paintings from his series inspired by the barbershops that once operated in the homes of Caribbean immigrants and which, to Anderson as a child, looked like “a secret meeting. At the very beginning, “Is it okay to be black?” (2015-16), bottles and lotions are tucked under the faces of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as if the struggle for black empowerment were at stake with every hairstyle. In 2020, when Anderson made “Dixie Peach,” he reduced this lost, underground world to nameless squares, ovals, and a background tile pattern. Washed in sheer, translucent hues, these layers of shape and color haunt each other as if the specters of previous hairstyles — and all their complex social meanings — still lurk today.

Still from “Blood in My Milk” by Marianna Simnett (2018)

But the last word should go to Cammock. Presented separately from the video and the ceramics, the final part of her “Changing Room” installation is a sparse textile map that was commissioned by Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Hayward Gallery for the British Art Exhibition 9. Including a blood-red river meandering through a yellow ring road and bold, dark repetitions of the word ‘Leave’, the iconography both signals his family’s flight to London as life in post-Powell Wolverhampton is become untenable for a black family and that of Wolverhampton. recent Brexit vote. But the map also features a grid of black abstract shapes, possibly footprints, next to the caption “Plotting the Course”. A reference to the historic 1988 exhibition organized by the Blk Art Group – formed in Wolverhampton in 1979 – indicates that black art was alive and shining long before the white establishment paid attention to it.

That was then. It is now. Will a culture of care and healing prevail? Or is our national pandemic of inequality and injustice beyond the antidote? Cammock’s map, like the whole show, leaves us poised on a knife’s edge.

As for Wolverhampton, it has been assigned to Housing Secretary Michael Gove’s ‘upgrade’ project. It should be noted that the government document that announced this initiative began by making comparisons to Renaissance Florence. But if Gove wants 21st century solutions to 21st century problems, he might do better to engage now in the explosion of contemporary imagination at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

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