Saturday, February 22, 2014

'Curio-City' at Curious Duke Gallery, 20th February 2014

My heart lies in Whitecross Street. If I was to be trapped there forever I think I could just about cope: there's a cinema, a supermarket, numerous great restaurants, kickin' takeaways, a world food market and a smattering of art galleries. It's these that I appreciate the most, little cultural flavour bombs - the glace cherry in the middle of a delicious Bakewell tart.

Curious Duke used to be tucked away in a little ground floor / basement shop at the top of the street. It was cosy enough but those heading downstairs risked bonking their heads onthe low ceiling and it was easy to overlook among the throbbing hum of weekday burrito-seeking office workers. Nobody's going to miss Curious Duke now though, they've relocated to the handsome corner space at 173 Whitecross Street.  

With sunlight streaming in through the windows, the faint perfume of baking pizza dough from Cozzo over the road and the clickety-clack of hammer on wood from the framers in the next room its undeniably a step-up for Curious Duke, a chance for them to spread their wings and show the world what they got. So it's appropriate that this opening exhibition is a kind of 'Greatest Hits', a parcelling up of the London-focussed, pop-inflected and gently humorous themes that I've seen across Curious Duke's last few exhibitions.

Watchtower (the Hill has Eyes) - Darragh Powell
As someone that loves London I've always got time for art that explores the psychic undercurrents and symbols that power the city.  So perhaps its predictable that the first thing I gravitate to is Darragh Powell's paintings of London occupied by hordes of crows.  In Watchtower (the Hill has Eyes) we see a familiar piece of street architecture surrounded by a murder of crows in flight.  Everyone is familiar with the legend of the ravens of the Tower of London: "if the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall…".  Fortunately for Queen and country the Tower raven's wings have been sufficiently mutilated to physically prevent them from flying away (which seems like a bit of a loophole to me).  But Powell's crows are in rude health and full flight, making a mockery of their captive cousins.  Perhaps the crow is the more appropriate modern symbol of London anyway; intelligent, beautiful and yet a scavenger - feeding on the remains of others.

London Slithers - Tannaz Oroumchi
Continuing these askew views of London are Tannaz Oroumchi's London Slithers and London Bobble.  They're maps of the City of London and the surrounding neighbourhoods, entirely stripped of all explanation - making them next to useless as aids to navigation, but fascinating as a psychogeograpical way to understand the development of the city.  My favourite of the two, London Slither, shows the street plan of the city as a quasi-organic structure, something you might see growing inside a Petri dish.  It's a reminder of the way this city evolved: Anglo-Saxons walking down ancient Roman roads, Tudors building atop the filth of the middle ages, Victorians cramming slums on top of those ramshackle buildings and finally we Neo-Elizabethans sinking huge towers of steel and glass right through these historical strata, deep into the primordial London clay.

One of Sam Peacock's Unseen Landscapes
This theme of analogue biological fuzziness continues with one of Sam Peacock's Unseen Landscapes.  They're impressively tactile works, odd materials bulging out from the a metal surface, capturing the light flickering across every single crenellation. There's something disconcertingly sludgy about these pieces, the rusty reds and browns on top of metal looking like a toxic waste spill, heavy metals leaching into rivers and streams.  On a slightly more positive note this gooeyness also could be life giving too, the coastline of some faraway planet, or an undersea amoebic soup pregnant with life.  Either way it's pretty neat to look at.

Miracle - Roys People
Much of what's on display here showcases a slightly removed view of the world, something that's at the forefront in Roy's People's miniature dioramas, featuring teeny-weeny models of people engaged in surreal behaviours in urban landscapes.  A man waters a dandelion that's burst through concrete, someone pushes a cart laden with tiny berries across a huge road, but my favourite is I Come in Peace, showing two tiny army men with guns squaring off against a snail.  There's a whiff of 1950s atomic age science fiction to this; the picture in the same tradition as the giant ants of Them! or the prehistoric killer molluscs of The Monster That Challenged the World.  Somehow the snail has a kind of deadpan insouciance, clearly not giving a toss about the guns or barked warnings thrown in his direction.  Roy's People are going to be holding an exhibition here in a few months - I can't wait.

This was a kind of artistic buffet, a manifesto of the themes and imagery that Curious Duke wants to explore. I'm pretty fortunate that a gallery that aligns largely with my own sensibilities has opened up not far from my house, and I can't wait to see what they're going to do with this prominent position on the street.  In the midst of a cold, grey and wet winter, it's stuff like this that brightens up the dull days, sending much-needed shards of sunlight piercing through the clouds.

Curio-City is at the Curious Duke Gallery until 28th March, 173 Whitecross Street, EC1Y 8JT

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