In the days of the comet…

The British Art Show 7 is not a title that would normally send you rushing to the Hayward Gallery eager to see the brightest and best of contemporary British Art . As an exhibition it comes around ever 5 years or so and tries to give an overview of those who are to be considered the ‘important artists working in Britain today’. Having endured recent Turner prize shows, the thought of passing over good money to see this Hayward Touring show was not on the top of my list of priorities. However having arrived early for the UCU demonstration against cuts in pay and pensions and with time on my hands I ventured in.

Nathaniel Mellors 'Ourhouse' Animatronic

First off, Charles Avery‘s impressive drawing from his The Islanders series immediately stands out. A contemporary artists who can actually draw is novel in itself but here is one that blends his talent into a complex narrative that features an imaginary Island peopled with characters that include the Hunter and his would be sweetheart called Miss Miss. . A large vitrine – think Damien Hirst – shows her expectant and being observed by a one armed snake. It’s an ongoing narrative and so intriguing its worth looking out for further episodes. Narrative seems to be the key to this show and probably accounts for why it is so interesting.

Sarah Lucas 'Nuds'

And of course, the normal course of action when visiting similar exhibitions is to avoid the films at all cost; large projections in darkened spaces: repetitive and dull without a hint of plot or meaning. Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s film ‘The Empty Plan’ proved this supposition wrong. Here is a feature length film staring the German dramatist Bertold Brecht which juxtaposes his theoretical writing in exile in Los Angeles with different contrasting productions of his play The Mother as staged in Weimer, East Germany and America. Its well acted, very entertaining, amusing, informative and enjoyable.

Alasdair Gray 'Andrew Gray aged 7 '

The same can be said for Nathaniel Mellors ‘s film and sculptural installation ‘Ourhouse’. Set in an English country house where a figure known as The Object devours books, which he then excretes as objects and through which the family play out fantastical episodes. In the darkened space is an animatronic installation, which consists of a head vomiting a sickly substance – a comment perhaps on the proceeding on screen.

Another film this time and a long one, is by Christian Marclay and is a 24 hour compilation of old films sequences that show the time on various clocks which have been edited to be shown in real time. Quite a feat and obviously one which you can drop in and out of without much loss of meaning. A quick look into other film rooms reveals that the curators have an eye to what is current and relevant to today’s young art filmmakers.

There are 39 artists in this show and not all are new discoveries. Sara Lucas, always the most interesting of the YBAs from the point of view of the creative process, continues to surprise with her group of sculptures called NUDS – nylon tights stuffed with kapok formed into biomorphic shapes that resemble interacting human appendages. They stand on plinths and jokingly refer to abstract sculptures.

Painters fare less well, but George Shaw shows three canvases of the housing estate he grew up in done in his trademark Humbrol enamel paints. Much larger than previous paintings and executed in a photo-realistic unemotional style the bleak desolation, broken fences and graffiti covered walls are stark reminders of the neglected and forgotten environments that blight people’s lives.

Continuing the narrative theme, the oldest artist in the Show is Glasgow writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray (75) and if one wonders why he has been included in this show of what’s new and vital in contemporary art I can only presume it is because as he actively still working on ongoing projects he has come to the attention of young curators.. He shows paintings done from drawings over a period of time, one of musician and storyteller Mick Broderick stands out. ‘I disapprove of time’ Gray says ‘when working fully, productively and without interruption we live in a continual present’.

The subtitle for this show “in the days of the comet’, is taken from a science fiction novel by H.G. Wells where the idea of recurrence and visitation results in mankind’s greater understanding of itself. This show is the strongest British Art show for quite a while but it takes time to get around. The artworks are complex and some knowledge of the artists and their concerns are vital, but with time on your hands and a willingness to look, it proves to be very rewarding. Look out for it later at venues in Glasgow and Plymouth where suitably reinvigorated, the show like the green fog omitted by Well’s comet will convert all to its way of understanding.

James Cowan
Courseleader Fine Art

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1 comment for “In the days of the comet…

  1. roberta
    5 April 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Sounds interesting James – there’s a thread on the student forums about George Shaw so this is a good coincidence, the opportunity to visit the exhibition when it comes to Glasgow and see these paintings by Shaw as well as at least some of the other exhibits.
    I think the Sarah Lucas fabric sculpture looks very reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois’ work in material and method, and to some extent subject matter. But maybe with a lighter touch.
    Thanks for posting this review.

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