It is curious that this country should be without any regular national survey exhibition of contemporary art. The British Art Show could hardly be said to makeup for this. The diverse work on show allied to a strong desire on the part of the curators, Caroline Collier (South Bank), Andrew Nairne (Third Eye Centre), and David Ward (Artist), to move along to a new group of artists has meant that they have opened themselves to a certain degree of criticism, especially in the national press. There is no real reason why the criticism should be so harsh. For example Nairne’s record at Third Eye Centre shows that he has always been interested in fostering a new art, of both local and national origin, in the international vein and style rather than the provincial worthy. From the outset the organizers stated that one should expect a diverse exhibition of artists under 35, many of whom have not shown much before. It would have been worrying for both the artists and curators if the national press had liked the British Art Show.
This is not to say that all criticism has been off the mark. If one sets out to create a ‘diverse exhibition’, it is essential that the work is treated sympathetically, given space, and on first showing at the newly refurbished Maclellan Galleries this has not been the case, (although at later venues both work and installation may change). The new galleries in Glasgow look as thought they have been refurbished by an over-eager interior design company which was never told that the rooms were to be sued to show art in. the walls have been covered in some kind of artex, and the woodwork has been artfully Smalboned, creating a space which is more pastiche than real. A bit like the room in 2001 where an attempted simulation of a familiar space has somehow gone awry due to enthusiastic misunderstanding of detail. It is as if those responsible for the refurbishment had only photographs and television pictures of art galleries to work from.
David Ward states in the opening paragraph of his essay:’ No themes were pursued in selecting the work, no theoretical stance preferred and therefore the exhibition as a whole embraces diversity.’ Making a big point about not having a big point to make. The curators have certainly succeeded in their aim to produce a varied display, within the unstated parameters of their own preferences which move from the fey to resistant. It is of course nonsense to claim that no themes were pursued in the exhibition, quite clearly the central theme is that which has characterized many international exhibitions of recent years: that of the high profile curator putting together an apparently diverse showing but one which essentially embodies an underlying theme, that of late Eighties euro-philosophy where modernisms’ reliance on notions of progression have been overcome by a new orthodoxy. David Ward appropriates the Parkett line, ‘There’s more under the floor’. This exhibition propounds a complexity of intention and interpretation appropriate for a time when standing with one camp or another has become faintly difficult. The attitude of ‘I am right so you must be wrong’ has been bypassed in favour of a kind of art land intellectualism where more is more in terms of general approach, yet the individual artists concerned often play out familiar themes towards a reiterative style which is really closer to the past than anyone really wants to admit.
Bethan Huws presents four plinths, all about one foot square and usual height. Each plinth is topped with a foot-square Perspex cover. Inside are carefully wrapped boatlets. Each a spiral of reed with the end tucked up to forma a kind of sail. They are one inch long with two or three arranged in each vitrine. The work has a disarming presence set against other hard-edged reworkings of consistent neo-minimalist themes. Huw’s art achieves a concise statement whilst avoiding grand gestures. As with the best wirk in the British Art Show, Huw’s questions the underlying conclusions of dogmatic formalism. Jyll Bradley presents two light-boxes, sitting on the gallery floor which, as in the past, bear blurred unrecognizable images of women together with an overlaid text. This time it is ‘Mousse au chocolat’. On the wall, in close proximity are two sheets of aluminium painted white. Also there are Rorsarch test papers carrying blotted ink symmetry. Beyond the shared symmetry of the elements there is an underlying confusion, a recognition of the complexity of relations. It is just such resistant work that seems somehow to push things in many directions rather than just sideways. Gary Hume’s paintings share something of this. His twin Magnolia Doors 1989, are unfortunately placed opposite each other with a Rachel Whiteread sculpture in between, one of the many problems with this hang which will hopefully clear up on tour. Hume’s intention in creating something which is ‘just’ a painting changes these works from formal studies which happen to be titled ‘Door’ towards an area between representation and the making of autonomous objects. His use of housepaint, something he shares with Ian Davenport, ensures that the pedantry of object-illusion play is weighted in favour of an elementary and obvious result. It is this desire to be sure of a look that characterises certain work here. Once set out, all intentions are followed through. Julian Opie has constructed something close to the cool gloss of an airport lounge or business show stand. Alternate glass and aluminum panels stand to form a small maze in the central gallery. Each smoke glass panel bears four painted discs at eye level. Where a company logo may usually be seen there is blank white, where clean lines are used as an aid to selling there is no product other than the construction itself. This work shares some of Dan Graham’s concerns with the apparent neutrality of corporate public space. Caroline Russell has taken the manifesto more literally.