The Challenge of the New Contemporaries

The Bloomberg New Contemporaries show at the ICA is a test. All you get is the artist’s name and the work’s title, and there is no little paper catalogue either telling you what you should be seeing.  So you face each work of art and have to assess it on its own merits.

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First off I was faced with Julia Parkinson’s ‘In Conversation’ (above). I don’t mind admitting that this one baffled me, and the title only added to my floundering incomprehension.  Perhaps the tiered strata of steel were supposed to represent an arena or conference hall in miniature, a space for conversation.  Or perhaps it was supposed to be ironic, as the black emptiness of the piece, which simultaneously excludes the viewer from entering, precludes any notion of conversation.  It certainly didn’t seem to spark any among the spectators, who rubbed chins, wrinkled foreheads and remained studiously, contrarily silent.

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Catherine Hughes’ work, just beyond, was therefore a relief.  In that it had content, and a message.  It was also an innovative means of presenting a pertinent issue, and a clever subversion of the boundaries between art forms, combining the traditional framed 2-dimensional artwork with light art and blurring and negating the image’s status as the central focus, the ‘work of art’.  The images were digital prints of advertisements for beauty products, cars and jewellery, pushed aside like a curtain drawn to show the blank wall behind, rendering the images illegible and turning them into so much rubbish in the gutter – impermanent and disposable.  Meanwhile, the strip light that should illuminate this image of ideal beauty like a beacon to aspire to has dropped out, lighting the empty wall and further undermining the significance of the picture.  The geometry of the aluminium frame and strip light have a rhythm and poetry of their own, so that I began to look at the whole composition with barely any regard for its supposed subject, on which the title insists: ‘Into the Fold: REN Hydra-Calm Global Protection Day Cream’.

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Further on were some paintings.  I am glad that the traditional medium of paint on a flat surface still has a place in these ultra-contemporary showcases.  However, though I feel happier because more able to make an informed critique of them, I wonder how far you can be really, seriously avant-garde as a painter?  I suppose there can be a certain tension between the medium and the subject matter; the portraits of police girls posing provocatively, for instance, currently on show at the Saatchi Gallery, come from cheap tabloids or fetishist magazines, and are therefore somehow in conflict with the hierarchical prestige of oil painting, anarchist interlopers.  Maarten van den Bos paints with a luscious fluency, using a thick expressive lines with an adept economy; yet he addresses the timeless theme of the human figure – as in ‘Body Culture’ (above) or ‘Pearheaded Woman’ (below).

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Aesthetically I admire his style as well his direct engagement with the human figure on an intimate level, yet large-scale.  But conceptually, this is hardly a new idea.  Nonetheless, if ideas are given precedence over quality and talent, we will only end up with quantities of meaningless forms whose superficial and supposedly controversial import is totally hidden without a long-winded pseudo-philosophical written explanation – or which remains ironically silent and hopes that baffled viewers feel secretly embarrassed by their self-assumed ignorance.  I would much rather have paintings of bodies.

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Joanna Piotrowska represents contemporary photography.  Her series, of which a number are represented at the ICA with further examples currently exhibited at the Jerwood Space, considers relationships within families with unflinching directness.  The images are static, as if life has stood still temporarily allowing deep, complex private emotions – with all the vulnerability that accompanies them – to be momentarily revealed.  There is a touching awkwardness to some of the poses, a raw humanity that is both utterly contemporary and timeless, the monochrome silver gelatin process connecting them to a long photographic heritage.

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The film pieces impressed me too.  As I question the contemporary status of figure painting, so I also question the place of film in the art gallery.  This is not to say that I challenge the concept of film as art; but that there is a different response required from the spectator.  In my mind the film must first of all be relatively short – no longer than the time one might spend scrutinising a really interesting static artwork.  And it must have aesthetic qualities that capture the eye without relying on narrative (though a narrative element may be present).  Otherwise, what exactly distances it from a short art-house film?  The film pieces selected for the ICA show did qualify as art in my mind – at least those I saw before they were peremptorily switched off as the gallery closed.

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Fatma Bucak’s 8.42 minute work, ‘Blessed are you who come – Conversation on the Turkish-Armenian Border’, was both a beautifully-constructed set-piece and a fascinating sociological study.  Subtitles highlight the bemused remarks of the men who have agreed to take part as they peer towards the camera or watch the artist silently perform some form of esoteric rite, twisting around and among the figures enigmatically in a black dress without engaging with either them or us.  The viewer, just as much in the dark, finds him/herself in sympathy with the men and engaged in their brusque commentary.

However it was Josephine Sowden’s ‘The Lilies of the Field’ that made the most extraordinary impact.  The expert editing, which flickered from extreme close-up to wide-angle panorama, and the rhythm of chatter punctuated by silence were utterly hypnotic.  It captured the perpetual anxiety of modern life that borders on madness, the sound of the voices that chatter eternally and maniacally in one’s head, interjected with the silence of a vast, empty landscape and the slow, ritualistic application of primeval mud over the artist’s body.  It was beautiful, powerful and poetic.

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And finally a small but enchanting work caught my eye: ‘The Impossibility of Telepathy’ by Daniela Sarigu, an abstraction in highlighter pens on linen.  The short lines of colour, muted on the natural fibres, merge together from a few feet away to a pale wash as of a watercolour sunset.  And it doesn’t seem to matter what the meaning is, there is just a structural exactitude that is almost like a visual explanation of an elemental,  philosophical truth.

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