Neon Gallery

a new gallery opens in shoreditch...

It’s a mixed up time for the London artworld. Is it boom or bust? Is the tide turning to Berlin? Are we all a bit tired of the glamour, the awards, the endless media exposure? Or are we terrified that the public will finally lose interest, after having read Matthew Colling’s latest doorstop? Are we all going to lose our shirts in the coming recession (whenever that might be), or is it that there are too many bad artists chasing too much easy money? But then why is that everything seems to be closing down? Or is it that we’ve only just realised that contemporary art simply isn’t the new rock ‘n’ roll? And can there be any rock ‘n’ roll after September 11th? It’s enough to drive you to hysterics.

Joking aside, we’re living through some gloomy and uncertain times at the moment, and this generally apprehensive mood happens to coincide with the London art world’s own preoccupation with where it should go from here, after a remarkable decade of change. But new galleries are opening in spite of the jitters, proving that there’s still room for newcomers in the commercial market, whilst the enthusiasm for artist-run independent spaces continues to throw up a variety of energetically short-lived DIY ventures.  In the midst of this, and falling conceptually somewhere between the two, comes Neon Gallery. Describing itself casually as a shop for paintings and sculptures, rather than a gallery, Neon has appeared with the intention of injecting some footloose improvisation into the current circuits of art making and exhibiting.

Given the nature of Neon’s inception, the back-to-basics mentality isn’t surprising. Kerry Ryan, east end neon sign-maker, teaming up with posh art impresario Max Wigram, has fixed up the basement of his shop on the corner of Spitalfields Market, with the brief of presenting established and younger artists, in an energetic, constantly changing ensemble. Fronted by artist and sometime gallerist Mustafa Hulusi, Neon’s ethos recalls the help-yourself bohemianism of early-nineties London, an attitude that Wigram likes to compare with the shop galleries of 1920s Paris. If you like something you see, Wigram suggests, you can buy it, have it wrapped and leave with it under your arm. True to its unpretentious art-shop principles, by the time I get there, Hulusi tells me that a set of Mat Collishaw prints have already been sold and dispatched. Plenty more to look at nevertheless, with fifteen artists showing painting, sculpture, photography and, given Mr Ryan’s speciality, more well-crafted neon than you can shake a stick at.

As shows go, Neon’s launch collection is an eclectic gathering of the already-famous and hopeful up-and-comers, but there’s a particularly charged aspect to this meeting of different generations of ‘young British artists’. With the likes of Collishaw, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Johnny Shand Kidd present, it makes for a curious, and slightly melancholic taking-stock of the Brit-art story so far. Shand Kidd’s photographs of boozing yBas that punctuate the space act as a self-mythologizing reminder of their ‘nineties heyday, the presence of these pictures stressing an unbridgeable historical separation, rather than continuity. There is of course some simple truth to this; early trailblazers, these artists have become figureheads for a cultural phenomenon who’s subsequent expansion has been largely beyond their control, and it’s this growth that the younger generation has come to treat as the status quo. It’s no surprise that the raucous energy of earlier years should seem distant and heroic compared to today’s normalised professionalism.

This entertaining yet morbid historicity reoccurs in Mat Collishaw’s Untitled, a huge black and white nude close-up lifted from some bit of pornography, a work from 1989. Yellowed and crumbling, it still exudes Collishaw’s dubious and sinister voyeurism, its corpse-like presence counterposed by Sarah Lucas’ New Religion (Violet), 2001. A three-dimensional pink neon outline of a schematised coffin, Lucas’ piece sits vengefully in the corner, proudly asserting the yBa claim to the darker side of existence, delivered in an easy-to-swallow format. Tracey Emin’s neon sign My Cunt Is Wet With Fear, 2001, with it’s apocalyptic biographical immediacy, intensifies the gloom, and lends stark contrast to the more whimsical nature of the rest of the show.

By comparison, the work of the younger artists demonstrates an ease and indulgence their predecessors could ill afford, a self-confidence that is typical of the idiosyncratic and light-hearted tone of recent years. Not having to assert themselves with quite the same aggression has led this wave of artists down more introspective routes, ones that are comfortable with the persistence of traditional forms of art-making, yet still curious about their value in the present. It’s a motivation which is most evident in the paintings and sculptures; the current tendency to revisit the values of modernist form is stylishly formulated in Henry Coleman’s Pull, 2000, a constructivist totem of wood-effect Formica, that teeters as it disappears skyscraper-like amongst the rafters of the gallery. Around the corner, modernist sculpture’s defiance of gravity takes form in Roger Hiorn’s They Won’t Yet, Look in Your Eyes, 2001, another of his hanging ceramic foam-emitting vessels. Hiorn’s aesthetic is reminiscent of the heroic, almost religious futurism of the 1936 film ‘Things to Come’, except that in the case of Hiorn’s objects, these things happen to have arrived. Mark Titchner’s pop-philosophising light box Why is There Something Instead of Nothing?, 2001, asks the kind of question of it’s own existence that is impossible to answer, except perhaps to reply that the world just tends to be better that way.

Nevertheless, more things don’t always mean better things, though this doesn’t prevent their speedy proliferation. This much seems to be the case in the substantial chunk of easy-listening expressionism, concocted by fellow Hobbypop-ers Sophie Von Hellemann and Deitmar Lutz. Painted with nonchalant self-regard, their canvasses knock out equal measures of gauche romanticism and militant ordinariness, the limitation of the painting eclipsed by its satisfaction with its own cuteness. The standoff between expressionism and formalism revived in many of these works is however broken in Rebecca Warren’s remarkable Bitch Magic The Musical, 2001, a bizarre grouping of malformed painted clay chunks, a neon ring and various fluffy blobs; slightly abstract, poorly made, not quite narrative though expressive, it manages to take sculpture away from the current taste for enhanced product design, towards something that still refuses the easy option of pastiched expressionism.

So maybe the taste for introspective formalism and naïve romanticism, so popular in the last couple of years is set to change again. There’s a kind of urban realism, of sorts, that emerges in the other work, in Mustafa Hulusi’s tragicomic self-promoting Musmex poster, 2000, or in Francis Upritchard’s disquieting painting Canary Wharf Through Binoculars, 2001; and a darker seam of troubled psychology is quietly present in Anna Bjerger’s little scenes in oil, or Dave Saunder’s story panel One Goat, 2001. Either way, it looks like Neon Gallery is well placed to catch the changing mood, and with a little luck, it may act as a focus for where things go from here, recreating the energy and ambition that Wigram and co. remember. And if not, you’ll still be able to play a frame of pool; the table’s arriving next week.



First published in Contemporary, March 2002 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated