Stephen Willats

Dave Beech

Artists whose practice encompasses a strong theoretical or critical commitment tend, even now, to be the exception rather than the rule.  However much the critical and artistic landscape has changed over the last decades, the professional categories of artist, critic, curator and dealer persist in defining the structural and pragmatic limits of the art world and the practices it supports.  And although the artist - the producer of the stuff which is then bought, sold, wrote about and exhibited - occupies the privileged position in this constellation of activities, that position relies on the artist not transgressing the bounds of their ‘professional competence’, leaving the explaining and the criticism to others; hence the celebrity artist who doesn’t give interviews, or the faux-naïf artist who enacts a subjective impenetrability as a defense against critical interrogation. Those who do, however, play for higher stakes, sometimes maintaining a hard-won autonomy, sometimes having to return to those conventions of activity which persist and dominate.

Stephen Willats’ practice has for many years proposed a critique of art and the methodology for a practice which seeks to transform the relation between the author and audience of culture.  In place of a one-way ‘transmitter’ model of culture, presenting a monolithic representation of reality to a passively receptive audience, Willats has initiated projects that put the interaction between participants at the heart of the work. In ‘Macro to Micro’ at Laure Genillard, Willats continues his investigation of such interactive and reflexive models;  comprising a grid of still photographs, text fragments, sound and video recordings, the piece presents the documentation resulting from a walk down a west London high street.  Fifteen ‘documentary’ participants were instructed to record various discreet aspects of the walk, from ‘facial expression’ to ‘institutional signs’, whilst a group of five actors had the task of performing a number of pre-determined actions as the walk progressed.  The resulting fifteen ‘channels’ of recorded fragments, selected by the participants, arranged horizontally, and running roughly parallel in chronological order, offer the viewer fifteen different subjective and qualitative versions of the same event. 

As localised models of relations which are non-hierarchic, dynamic and based on interpersonal agreement and group collaboration, Willats’ projects always have strongly democratic overtones.  Willats’ interest in offering participants situations that demonstrate that individual perceptions and collective consensus can achieve a state of mutual equilibrium has a dry optimism about it which is lacking in much current art. However, it’s an optimism that does verge on the utopian, not because the desire for a society of individuals unmarked by divisions of power is a hopelessly unattainable goal, but because Willats’ theoretical propositions have a tendency to over-emphasize relations of communication and expression between individuals at the expense of examining those conditions which aren’t susceptible to change by the mere re-negotiation of individual or group experience.  The dominant representation of reality is not synonymous with a dominated structure of communication, if only because the source of that domination lies in those social, economic and institutional realities which systems of communication can only mediate and reflect.  Furthermore, this lack of differentiation leads to a dismissing of individual authorial intent in favour of a relativistic pluralism of expression, a continuing irony of Willats’ singularly authorial career.

By contrast, ‘Watch out for the Agoraphobic Saviours of Mankind’, Dave Beech’s first solo show, wears the seal of the individual author with pride, and  carries the added intrigue of being ‘curated’ by none other than hotshot curator Gavin Wade. It’s a curiously obtuse gesture, but one which points to the difference between an artist claiming to be, as Beech has done, ‘artist, critic and curator’, and the blunt realities of critical and curatorial influence.  As Wade is currently more of a curator than Beech, the message is that whilst Beech may hold his own as a critic, in his capacity as an individual artist he, like others, owes his visibility to curators such as Wade.  Given Beech’s previous defense of the curatorial and critical autonomy of artist-run spaces during their heyday, exposing the professional divisions at work in the solo-artist-show might make for an indirect acknowledgement of the declining relevance of their project, and a return to a more conventional and individuated forms of professional mediation, now that much of what they offered has been assimilated into more mainstream sympathies. 

Beyond the heightened awareness of the interests that underpin the nature of the exhibition, one eventually get to the work itself. Beech, like Willats, is as well known for his theoretical writing on art as his directly artistic practice, most memorably for the controversy that he and John Roberts sparked with the 1996 publication of their essay Spectres of the Aesthetic.  Beech’s deployment of the notion of the philistine, and his interrogation of ‘non-specialist’ modes of attention in art are both evident in the slide projections and video works on show, and with some of the works dating back to 1994, offer a chronology of how these themes are worked through and developed. It’s perhaps not surprising that the earliest works in the show are the most bluntly confrontational; The photographs that comprise The Philistines are Coming, 1994, show grinning kids holding handwritten signs declaring their revolt against the dead hand cultural conformism. I’ll teach you Difference, 1995, follows the day to day activities of a number of monster-masked individuals, as they have a drink in the pub, sit on the sofa at home or go to the park.  These antagonistic show-downs between high-cultural positions and the ‘vulgarly’ unmediated forms of everyday representation give way in the later slide works to a more sophisticated interrogation of popular forms and motifs and the uses they can be put to.  The Swing, 1997 and Bang Bang Shoot Shoot, 1998 both use the lo-fi means of the 35mm slide carousel to put together silent still narratives, comprising just two or three visual elements, that simultaneously dismantle and re-cohere themselves with every snap of the projector.  What’s interesting about these is the informal and playful way in which they make visible a deeply embedded cultural habit which exists in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of culture.  Less convincing are the more recent video works, which return to less formally reflexive territory, and betray a growing alignment in Beech’s work with the subjectively ‘authentic’ nature both of popular culture and of personal subjective narrative.  This Boy, 2000, is a zany, cod-psychoanalytical inverted rereading of the Pinocchio story, which continues Beech’s interest in monsters as the sublimated forms of libidinal excess, but which like much abjection theory believes that it sees in popular narrative far more that there really is. In a similar mode, Gone, 2000 takes the personal biography of the cancer column into tortuous spirals of introspective speculation, and goes no where fast. These problems are brought to a head in My Mummy’s Dead, 2000, in which Beech, wearing monster gloves and thick lenses, tries to sing along with Lennon’s lyrics, but breaks down and sobs after two lines, and hides his eyes by switching to a pair of Elvis style sunglasses.  The heart-felt quality of Beech’s emotional response is evident, but then so is much of the televised emotionalism of Oprah and they all turn out to be fakes. In his search to combine the ‘authentic’ subject of popular culture with the immediacy of personal subjectivity, Beech risks drifting into an uncritical celebration of the popular, as if its unthinking sensibilities alone hold the key to art’s critical regeneration.


Published in Art Monthly no.235 April 2000 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated