News from London

An excerpt from my contribution to T-R-E-M-O-R-S Live, 25 October 2013, to their  “News from London” section, focusing on the annual Art Licks Weekend and in particular, a space called 38b.

“We aim to unpick and problematise values such as self-advancement, competition, professionalism and the separation of art from life that we understand as being ingrained in capitalism and, by extension, the institutional art world.”

***

Several times in conversation Eva Rowson emphasises that 38b is not a gallery. Since their inaugural show the spectre of the white cube, and its institutional and commercial connotations, has become progressively less welcome. Eva and co-curator Luke Drozd naturally leaned towards a more neutral, white-cube-like tradition for their first show of Drozd’s work, ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXY etc. They cleared their white-walled, wooden-floored living room of furniture and personal possessions, using plinths alongside domestic display features such as the mantle piece. Attended mainly by friends, and friends of friends, this first event was sociable, inexpensive and, apart from temporarily cramming the contents of one room into another, relatively convenient. The result was a great party, much rewarding discussion among peers, and provided the desired result: the creative energy that had fueled the exhibition was returned many times over by its reception, stoking new collaborations. Collaborations that enabled them to further consider the personal nature of the space and the social act of opening it up to others and their work. It became increasingly clear that 38b did not and would not want to operate like a traditional gallery space and therefore began to maintain and even emphasize more of its domestic qualities during exhibitions.

A sense of external legitimacy, whether institutional, financial, geographic or otherwise, does not fuel the D.I.Y art project, at least not at the beginning. It is self-affirmed simply by doing for its own sake. Funded predominantly by the time and effort of those involved, spaces that maintain this sense of self-legitimisation have a lot of freedom. They cannot also be open, discursive and critical of themselves, but crucially they strive to operate without yielding certain ideals surrounding the motivations for art activity. These ideals are clearly articulated by the aims of The Black Dog Collective, of which Eva and Luke are members: “we aim to unpick and problematise values such as self-advancement, competition, professionalism and the separation of art from life that we understand as being ingrained in capitalism and, by extension, the institutional art world.” 38b brings this mission statement home through its undisguised identity as a domestic space: a high-ceiling, neutrally decorated living room with two large sash windows looking out onto Peckham green. As the home of the curators, 38b is a spatial negotiation of the personal sphere as overlapped by a professionalised art realm in which the material differences between professional activity and artistic activity become progressively harder to unpick.

This idea doesn’t appear to prevent a sense of mysticism in the art work itself. Opening over the Art Licks Weekend, 38b’s thirteenth exhibition, Augury, a solo show by Tom Railton, cultivated a relationship between the everyday and artistic practice as something that builds into and grows through it. Combining history, literature and a narrative centering on the site of 38b itself, imaginative artifice and reality were woven together, but using familiar and navigable mechanisms of exhibition display within a domestic setting. As such, 38b’s living room was tidy rather than bare. Lamps, a stereo, sofa and chairs remained in place, as did plants arranged around the fireplace. A library of books were stacked neatly on shelves around the room, apart from the ones laid out for display in two glass topped wooden vitrines. The first vitrine by the window held two volumes on the ancient practice of augury: the divination of the future by studying the flights of birds. Looking out of the window to the opposite side of the street, flocks of pigeons formed an undulating crescent of feathery waves around the green. Pointing towards them, Railton’s wrought iron Lituus hung still and silent on the opposite back wall; a enigmatic curled wand wealed by those able to read the signs written in the shifting pattern of the flock. These feathery portents had also come to nest in the visionary imagination of the poet William Blake, once as angels roosting in a Peckham oak tree and later as hellish squatting creatures, more like furies or gargoyles. They flickered unnervingly on the television screen in the corner of the room, crouching in one of Blake’s’ illustrations.The poet and artist’s life was documented in another pair of volumes set out in a centrally placed vitrine supported by a low coffee table. Crumbs scattered from the edible ‘offerings’ given out to visitors had fallen onto the glass top where they had sat to read Blake’s Auguries of Innocence. Here, Eva told me of the pigeons that had resolutely made their home-roost on 38b’s terrace. Now, Railton’s hand carved deterrence adorned the lip of the terrace walls, keeping the birds in the air with a bristling hedgehog back of oaken spikes. Convenient for the practice of augury and the warding off of bird-mess, Eva would quite like to keep them.

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