David Steans

A British Art Show @ Meyohas reviewed

8 December 2015

The demurely titled A British Art Show, is the latest curatorial endeavor by artist/curator Joseph Buckley, a native of Leeds and recent graduate from the MFA program  at Yale University. Eighteen British artists are featured in the exhibition, many of whom are also from the city of Northern England’s current site of the major survey and inspiration The British Art Show 8. A British Art Show is situated far from the motherland, in Meyohas, a newly-minted apartment gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Fittingly, almost all of the show’s twenty-five works exude a sense of displacement – both at home and abroad, real and virtual, political and spiritual, visual and textual … the list could go on. Indeed, from beginning to end, the show refuses to situate itself, continually doing and undoing its own assertions, creating a sort of no-man’s-land.  In a way this survey, and Buckley’s curation of it, tacitly questions its genre, refusing to cast a grounding perspective, just as the high-rise buildings flanking the gallery’s sweeping panoramic windows block the horizon.

This lack of grounding is laid plain in the very first piece in the show, a text piece masquerading as institutional wall text. Hatty Nestor’s ‘A British Art Show – Text’ flatly outlines what an exhibition – and with it an exhibition text – ‘should be’, might be, even could be! But probably won’t be … isn’t. It casts a tone of ambivalence that resonates throughout the show, a sort of apology-turned-apologia whose only stance is to place the onus on the viewer for any shortcomings. The text wryly states that the fate of the exhibition lies in the hands of “whoever may come to encounter” its “uncertain ground. A ground,” it challenges, “which beckons your disturbance.”

Hatty Nestor, 'A British Art Show - Text' (2015). A British Art Show (2015). Exhibition view. Courtesy Mehoyas, New York.
Hatty Nestor, ‘A British Art Show – Text’ (2015). Installation view. Courtesy Meyohas, New York.

On the way to the narrow corridor to the main space, one might miss (as I did) a wall-sconce on the upper register of the wall – a flickering, electric candelabra, held up by a live human hand through a hole in the wall, ‘R U Next’ (2014) by Kitty Clark. If one does manage to remark it, this blatant exploitation, literally, carries on, and is quickly forgotten as we consume, and are consumed by the unfolding show. This overtly exploitative, yet functional apparatus becomes a commentary of the one in which we are an integral part.

The exhibition as a whole carries a self-deferential tone perpetually asserting a position, and then promptly erasing that gesture. Perhaps, as a result, the content at times slouches towards self-reflexivity. But make no mistake – it packs a hell of a punch. Each successive piece implicates the viewer, some more subtly than others, holding them to some degree accountable for the general inertia.

A take-away piece by Ruth Angel Edwards starts with a rhythmic, declaratory critique of North American consumerist culture, but then accelerates into a manifesto, or rant, that is punctuated at the end by a link to the artist’s website. Is this just an oversized business card or an anti-capitalist leaflet? Either way, it instantly becomes possession, which we can accept or refuse.

John Henry Newton, 'Volume Knob' (2015). A British Art Show (2015). Exhibition view. Courtesy Meyohas, New York.
John Henry Newton, ‘Volume Knob’ (2015). A British Art Show (2015). Exhibition view. Courtesy Meyohas, New York.

In David Steans’ ‘Villages of Britain’ (2015), a series of speakers read an original text based on Channel 4 documentary Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages – a search for “a rural idyll that may no longer exist”. They fudge and fumble the text as a reel of vintage Reader’s Digest images of English villages troll on, backed by calming, repetitive music also written by Steans. Were it not for its playful, but earnest readers and composition, the piece itself might fall victim to the fate of many of the villages pictured, whose “self-conscious kind of beauty is anathema to our idea of a perfect village”. Instead, the repetitive format with its sonic variations open the work to varying tonalities which evolve and unravel over the course of the twenty-five minute long video. In the end, the predictable, tight-lipped, coy narration releases itself and becomes something other – we are placed with a rider on a headless horse, riding, endlessly, direction unknown. Is this transcendence of the prior, measured speech or is it a condemnation to an endless trot around relentlessly picaresque, fundamentally inert, and essentially English, villages?

Again and again, Buckley chooses works and pairings that raise this type of quandary, leaving us to wonder whether we ourselves are riding a headless horse. The show repeats and folds in on itself, shrugs and excuses itself, points in one direction and the other – condemning itself, and the audience along with it.

Kitty Clark, ‘New Scum … Somebody Loves You’ (2015). Installation view. Courtesy Mehoyas, New York.
Kitty Clark, ‘New Scum … Somebody Loves You’ (2015). Installation view. Courtesy Meyohas, New York.

But Buckley knows exactly what he is doing. The exhibition layout mimics the neurotic atmosphere created by the work. Buckley conceptually and physically leads us through a spiral. Structures from the work are redoubled in the space. For instance, tudor-style beams from Francis Lloyd Jones’ c-print are blown up and projected onto the main room of the space in a vinyl cut-out, Harlan Whittingham & Benjamin Slinger’s video is shot in the kitchen of the gallery, but prefigures the actual kitchen in its placement. As the exhibition circles in on itself over, and over, one has an acute sense of déjà vu, like a punchline that relentlessly repeats itself.

Buckley has also constructed an actual spiral out of the space, cutting off a wall which would allow it to loop. The dark heart of the spiral is a literal déjà-vu: a dead end, and the rear-end of Clark’s sconce-arm, and perhaps the butt of what has become a not-so-funny series of jokes. An individual wearing a black hoodie and blonde wig hunches atop a ladder, their arm plugged into a false wall. A paper is pinned to their back, reading “Somebody loves you”. This is actually Clark’s second piece in the exhibition, ‘New Scum … Somebody Loves You’. As viewers raid the refrigerator for beers during the opening, the exploitive image is concealed, and re-revealed, over and over. Here, one is not only reminded of the hand-sconce in the corridor – but also forced to face the act of viewing, and looking away, as the treachery that it is. In order to exit the exhibition, one must literally turn their back on the stark image, itself almost a sneer, and backtrack; redoubled images, re-presenting themselves. Finally released into the hallway of a New York City apartment building, we cannot be sure from whence and where we came. And maybe that’s precisely the point. **

The A British Art Show group exhibition was on at New York’s Meyohas, running October 23 to November 13 , 2015.

Header image: A British Art Show (2015). Exhibition view. Courtesy Meyohas, New York.


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Most Loathed @ 3401 Lee St reviewed

3 August 2015

There’s a persistent push-and-pull present throughout Most Loathed, between feeling severely out of place –being that it is in a 1910 Bungalow located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles –and one of being right at home. It’s the inaugural exhibition in the house-turned-art-space that is 3401 Lee St, and it’s at once a show about ambiguity and exclusivity, all the while perpetuating a concept-driven approach.

Most Loathed is formally minimal, making use of the white-washed walls and open floor plan of the renovated space, and is curated in a sparse, spread-out way. The three artists involved, Sam Davis, Joseph Buckley, and Daniel Klaas Beckwith –including one candidate and two graduates of the Yale Sculpture MFA program –find commonality in an unseen ‘mood’ present in the show. This mood oscillates between the lighthearted nearly readymade ‘Spooky Action At A Distance’ (2015) by Beckwith–a vinyl Jack-o’-lantern face affixed to a gasoline powered leaf blower–and the bleak negatives present in Davis’ fictional correspondences between songwriters Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. His pieces titled ‘Peter’ (2015) and ‘Paul’ (2015) feature two oversized black and white laserjet printed digital collages held to the wall by huge colored push pins in a hanging gesture which give the prints more agency as sculptural objects. Rather than using the ubiquitous small white pin or even a frame, ways of mounting that we know to ignore, Davis reintroduces himself as a sculptor.

Most Loathed (2015) @ 3401 Lee St. Exhibition view. Image courtesy the artists.
Most Loathed (2015) @ 3401 Lee St. Exhibition view. Image courtesy the artists.

‘Cabinet of Victory’ (2015) by Buckley serves as a middle-ground between the works of Beckwith and Davis. It consists of the severed heads of 10 curators, cut from clear digitally printed vinyl, and mounted onto the upper portions of the walls in a trophy-like way. Spaced-out through the entirety of the show, the heads are unavoidable and intentionally crude. The gallery lights reflect themselves on the vinyl and air bubbles can easily be seen. Buckley is not attempting to create a resemblance of decapitated heads, instead, similar to the pins in Davis’ works, they are giving the heads an enhanced materiality. The pieces are operating within the realm of a “fuck it” sentiment, and are responding to this feeling in fresh and intelligent ways.

The role this show plays in the current climate of sculpture as a medium is a significant one. It depicts a trend towards a querulous reimagining of the readymade, and seeks out a dialogue surrounding what is sculptural. Beckwith’s ‘Water Bottles In Bucket With Ice’ (2015) is a piece that is not only a readymade, but it directly comments on the abstract and ambiguous power dynamic in the display of contemporary art. A bucket full of water bottles isn’t necessarily ‘out of place’ at an artist-run space (as opposed to an established gallery or museum). Such refreshments are often offered freely but it is the work’s ‘art-ness’ that immediately disallows and complicates the relationship between audience and artwork: visitors must not touch the art.

Most Loathed (2015) @ 3401 Lee St. Exhibition view. Image courtesy the artists.
Most Loathed (2015) @ 3401 Lee St. Exhibition view. Image courtesy the artists.

The readymade is also reimagined in the form of two commissioned written pieces ‘Dear Westminster Kennel Club’ and ‘Beyond the Forest of Disinclination’ (by Becket Flannery and David Steans respectively) which are stapled to the screen door at the entrance of  3401 Lee St. Text typically serves as an entry point into art, a preface which we believe will give us answers and insights before looking at the work. Like the other pieces in Most Loathed these texts (which present themselves as angry ‘letters to the editors’ written by animals and a bizarre fantasy style narrative) once again leave us in the conceptual dark. Davis’ pins, Buckley’s heads, and Beckwith’s Jack-o’-lantern exemplify the fantastic and absurd trends throughout the show that don’t allow us to view the work within a traditional sculptural lens. The presence of these unavoidable details acts as the pat on the back that lets us know it’s ok to stop at the obvious, that sometimes the very point is ‘not getting it’. **

Exhibition photos, top right.

Most Loathed opened at Los Angeles’ 3401 Lee St on July 17, 2015.

Header image: Most Loathed (2015) @ 3401 Lee St. Exhibition view. Courtesy the artists.

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Leeds Weirdo Club Annual 2014, May 6

6 May 2015

The Leeds Weirdo Club studio is launching a new publication titled Leeds Weirdo Club Annual 2014 at their Leeds location today, May 6.

As the working studio of artists Doug BowenMatthew Crawley, Harry Meadley (whom we previously reviewed here) and David Steans—was founded by the latter three in 2012, and engenders a collaboration amongst the four artists’ solo practices. 

Today, the three founders launch a new 200-plus-page publication, available for purchase at £20. The launch will feature special guest Gently Used, as well as free drinks.

See the event page for details. **

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