The Paper Bag Factory June - July 1999

“What do you mean, a warehouse show?”  Is this nineteen ninety-nine or have we slipped back a decade?  The warehouse show, infamous spawn of end-of-the eighties London, has a habit of sticking around, and though the initial sense of do-it-yourself elation and producer-driven authenticity may have become muted as the decade has progressed, the attraction of commandeering temporary or improvised locations continues to figure in the strategies of aspirant artists and curators.   In the ten years since freeze, with the activities of everyone from BANK, through City Racing, to Lost in Space and others, the ‘alternative space’ has been appropriated by a diverse range of commitments and motivations.  The practical value of the alternative space, the warehouse or apartment show, has often been over-polemicised as a blow for the autonomy of artists, not to mention artistic autonomy. According to your professional allegiances and ideological persuasions, the alternative venue can either be the camp from which one lays siege to the institution of art, or a necessary rite of passage that guarantees admission to the club.  In practice though, the art establishment’s increasingly flexible and pluralistic sense of mission has made such oppositions redundant; these days one can occupy fringe and mainstream simultaneously.

But still, it’s been a while since we had a Big Warehouse Show.  And Manufacturers isn’t small,  comprising 32 pieces by twenty artists, in some 10,000 square feet of desirable ex-industrial loft space in up-and-coming Deptford.  Manufacturers, says the blurb, presents ‘…visual artists who share concerns with structure, material and fabrication’, artists who furthermore display ‘a rigorous precision in the manufacturing process of their work’, and it’s on this point particularly that the show attempts to stake its ground.  For all the peripheral irony of the post-industrial setting, Manufacturers is really concerned with staking a claim to the already well developed critical terrain of the ‘hand-made’- that art which wears the ‘maker’s mark’ clearly on its sleeve.  But in contrast to the preoccupation evident in much recent work with processes and attitudes that celebrate the unskilled, the amateur and an idiosyncratic brand of cack-handed expressionism, the work here attempts a return to a less self-conscious, more objective relationship between artist and end-product.  That this can be seen as a ‘return’ points to the extraordinary pull of the ‘amateurist’ tendency in the British art of the 90’s.  For a time, it looked as if everyone from cultural Marxists (John Roberts et al) to art/fashion arrivistes (Martin Maloney and friends) were trying to lay claim to the rhetorical potential of the not-very-well-made: Everyone thought it was significant, but from their own critical standpoints.  What these differing perspectives agreed on however, was that the amateurist tendency was an authentic response amongst artists to the perceived failures of ‘the eighties’.

This sense of return to older considerations is underscored by the presence of work by John Frankland and Julian Opie, artists of a somewhat older artistic vintage to their co-exhibitors.  Frankland has installed Wrong Door,1998, a perfectly formed, functioning, pink gloss-painted house-door, which would happily provide entrance to the room beyond were it not for the fact that passage is far swifter via the adjacent  sledge-hammered gaping hole in the wall.  A neat, good-natured gag about the difference between art and life, or functionalism and aesthetics, pulled off because the mirror-like gloss of the pink and the heavy, polished steel of the handle is like most painted house-doors, yet simply far more attractive.

Julian Opie’s contribution adds a further note of historical retrospection, and reminds you that at least some of the work that we associate with the ‘eighties still holds its ground.  Tower Blocks, 1995, are four scaled and schematised plaster versions of the kind of council-built tower block that tends to dominate much of south-east London, as well as much of the view from the third floor of the paper bag factory.  Walking around these man-sized scale models allows you to rehearse the motifs of the Opie lexicon; the urban world’s capacity for abstraction, anonymity and reproducibility.  Viewing these with the tedious reality of estate life in the background, puts a bitter twist on the experience of the work; the scale and proximity of the real world tower block outside becomes confused with the reality of the artwork within. 

If Opie’s and Frankland’s work share the same detached, matter-of-fact attitude to the manipulation of material and image, that approach to making works in symbiosis with the sophisticated, slightly effete nature of their critical concerns.  By contrast, the work of the younger and lesser established artists demonstrates a noisier dialogue between the nature of the work’s production and how that dimension serves as vehicle for the work’s meaning.  Roger Hiorn’s Two Forms (Orange and Brown), 1999, take the attention to production detail and its effect on the viewer to a logical extreme; two immaculately turned off-white ceramic vessels, hang from the rafters on fine coloured nylon cords. Resembling what Duchamp might have produced if he had ever cast the bachelors of the Large Glass in porcelain, these two space oddities hang mid-air, each producing a gently growing column of fine soap bubbles.  To add to the sense of unspecified occasion, one form sports a narrow band of orange Perspex, the other a brown one.  The self-satisfying material specificity of these objects is what allows them to act out their extraordinary and entirely impenetrable narrative.

The amateurist school has produced a lot of artists who doodle, often with a Biro.  David Musgrave’s Doodle (second double), 1998, takes the viewer through a delirious cycle of mechanical and manual re-production; so the story goes, a crudely modelled plasticine anthropomorph was placed on a photocopier. The resulting crappy copies, all high contrast, darkness and blotches, were then meticulously transcribed by hand, in Biro.  The two drawings on show are almost identical, but an awareness of medium and method stuns one into realising the intensity of the work involved in their production.  Ultimately though, it is the particularity of the final image, contrasted with its banal origins that gives the work its power;  The lumpy plasticine man has been transformed into a glowing, ethereal humanoid, drifting in a black void.   This would be a bit naff, if the point wasn’t to demonstrate the imaginative potential of even the meanest processes; in this, Musgrave’s work shows a level of commitment and ambition that is often lacking in the kind of recent practice that frequently appropriates such base materials, only to turn them directly into lead.

Back in 1994 Michael Craig-Martin noted that “…the changes that mark the art of the 90’s and distinguishes it from that of the 80’s are becoming clear…the 80’s characteristics of pomposity, grand scale and expressionism on the one hand and high finish, irony and detachment on the other have given way to very different values. The new art is more modest, hand made and personal.”[1]  The subsequent five years have seen these concerns take centre stage. Perhaps as, some critics have suggested, the ubiquitous new modesty in art developed hand-in-hand with the more modest, scaled-down ambitions of the post-slump alternative spaces of the early ‘nineties.  But representatives of this trend now show in blue chip galleries, the ICA and the Tate, and their work hasn’t changed with the shift to the centre stage.  And whilst it would be daft to predict some imminent ‘eighties backlash of the pompous and grandiose, the detached and the ironic, it’s clear that the modest, hand-made and personal practices that have defined so much of new British art in the nineties now only serve to critically restrict what can be achieved by the artist as individual.  The theatricalisation of the artist as amateur, or hobbyist, or dodgy expressionist, precludes the possibility of work that can sustain itself independently of the handy and endearing fiction of the author’s motives and identity.  Bored with the knowing and self-deprecating amateurism whose easy lack of ambition insulates it from any accusation of failure, a forthcoming wave of artists may decide to up the stakes, and engage in a more rigorous dialogue between matter and imagination, process and meaning, creativity and ambition. And hey, it might just happen in an alternative venue.


[1] Michael Craig-Martin, Introduction to Goldsmiths BA Fine Art Summer Exhibition, 1994



Published in Art Monthly no 228, July August 1999 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated