Thursday, August 29, 2013

'POP MODERN: The Portobello Urban Arts Festival Opening Night at the Louise Blouin Foundation, 28th August 2013

"Fuck the man!" was the yell reverberating around POP MODERN last night.  Much of this exhibition is devoted to sticking it to authority, to cocking a snook at the establishment and viciously sneer at the bastards with the gumption to tell us what to do.  POP MODERN, now in its 11th year, runs alongside the annual Portobello Film Festival.  These are new artists with fresh ideas, a common theme finding new ways to experience the world, to pump us up with antipolitik bravado, to get us in black balaclavas reclaiming the streets from the 'the man' that would seek to control us.  

Of course the anarchistic spirit was a bit dampened when 'the man' showed up to rescue us from a bin someone had set on fire.  But more on that later.

Royal Car by Joe Rush, Misty Buckley and Alex Wreckage
I'm accustomed to small, cramped basement galleries, so walking into this airy, open exhibition space was instantly refreshing.  Dominating the room is Joe Rush, Misty Buckley and Alex Wreckage's Royal Car, as used in the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games. At first glance it looks like 'just' a run down vintage car, but on closer inspection you realise it's a kludged together tangle of parts spanning the history of the automobile.   It looks like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's cooler older sister, with neat touches like bonnet mounted chandeliers, red leather interior and art deco fans over the top of it.

One of the constant themes I saw throughout the exhibition was the discarded and tossed aside reincarnated as art.  Royal Car has a post-apocalyptic 'make do with what you have' feel to it, and you see this numerous other pieces throughout the gallery.  Joe Rush continues the theme in his doughty, Iron Man looking boxer statue: Mad Jock, and his Recycle Horse, an industrial piece that looks more grown than assembled.

Mad Jock by Joe Rush
While Rush has a focus on metal, another artist, Giles Walker works with bone.  I first saw Walker's work in the Museum of Curiosity at Black Rat Gallery last November.  His work impressed me then and still impress me now.  He creates dioramas populated by perfectly posed resin figures, each topped off with a bleached bird's skull.  Across one wall of the gallery these bird-headed men are placed in grisly tableaux.  

HELP by Giles Walker
In HELP two figures are trapped inside a birdcage, one unconscious, the other compressing his chest, futilely yelling for help.  In others the sense of dislocation is more subtle; in NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS FOR THOSE IN THE NOW the figurines are at work plastering page 3 girls on the wall, their vulturous faces a neat marriage to the dead-eyed grin of the topless model.  There's a constant collision between life and death in this work, the crying naked beaks getting a frantic second chance at life.  The most visceral is FUCK THE DREAM, ENJOY YOUR REALITY - two figures fucking so vigorously that it cracks the glass behind them as a collage of people in old photographs stare out at us.  The people in these photographs are as dead as the birds whose skulls top Walker's figures - yet still both them stare out at us accusingly, jealous of what we have.

I was also familiar with Lucy Sparrow's work. I last saw her battling off abuse from passers by at the Whitecross Street Festival a few weeks ago, but thankfully she seemed to be getting a kinder reception here..  Her work recreates unlikely objects in felt; iconic London architecture like Trellick Tower, hard-edged brutalism inverted so that it bulges warmly at you, almost daring you to hug it; or a pack of Marlboro Light cigarettes, each fag jostling for space as they fight their way out of the packet, smiling cutely at us.  Felt is an interesting medium to work with, carrying with it warm memories of primary school projects and home arts and craft hobbyists.  It's pleasant to touch, inviting and entirely unthreatening.  What Sparrow does brilliantly is harness this and flip the feelings back on you, encouraging you to combine these notions of warmth and tactile intimacy with 'cold' objects that exploit, explode and disgust.

Porn Mag by Lucy Sparrow
My favourite example on display at POP MODERN was her felt porn mag.  As you flip the soft pages you're faced with hardcore pornography, but in cartoonish, slightly crude pastels rather than hi-def over-saturated 'porn' aesthetic.  The unsettling effect is of a wank mag made by a well-meaning yet deluded grandmother.  Unlike the rest of the art here we're encouraged to interact with this magazine, underlining the contrast between the sticky/glossy/slick pages you'd expect from porn and the inviting and warm felt under your fingertips. (click here and here for more pics, though probably best not to if you're at work.)

The centrepiece of the opening was the premiere of a new film: Anarchist: the Malcolm McLaren Generation, aiming to trace the history of the anarchy movement in the UK in parallel with a biography of the Sex Pistols manager and rock n roll swindler.  This sounded right up my street, so I parked myself near the front early on and waited for it to begin. After an introduction by director Phil Strongman the film began.  A procession of notable celebrity interviews parades over the title sequences; I glanced down at the programme to find out how they were going to fit all this in.  To a faint horror I realised that this documentary was 3 hours long.  

Phil Strongman introducing his film.
I'm not going to criticise a film just for being 3 hours long, but it is a bit much for a documentary, especially considering the subject is punk rock - a genre not known for fucking around in getting its message across.  As far as I'm concerned the ideal punk song is about 2 and half minutes long: if you're trying to capture a speed-laced intensity you should take three hours of facts and opinions cram them down until you've got a brain-melting information overload.  But still, I'm not passing judgment, because as it turned out I didn't see that much of the film.  

As the film spoke talked of battles with the police and the authorities members of the crowd hooted encouragement at the screen.  Underneath both this and the film was the incessant bleep of a smoke alarm.  Naturally everyone ignored it.  I mean, c'mon, it's not like there's really going to be a fire is there?  But as we settled in for the long haul to watch anarchism battle against authority, authority burst through the doors and ordered us out of the building.  Meekly we complied, filing out of the doors as directed by serious-faced firemen, before being ordered to stand on the other side of the street as the source of the disturbance was located.

Right in the centre of the gallery was an enormous fibreglass dog turd, which periodically emitted puffs of smoke from within it.  I found myself hoping against hope that this piece had somehow caused our evacuation from the building.  Can you imagine the perfect symbolism I could have spun from yarn that rich?  Unfortunately the true cause was a bit more prosaic - some bozo had flicked a butt into a bin, setting the place alight.

'The Man' (possibly The Woman in this case) in action.
Even so, the irony of a crowd going instantly from voyeuristic anarchism to meek compliance was pretty damn funny.  Eventually 'the man' told us that we were going to have to wait half an hour or so for the smoke to clear inside, and we all shrugged our shoulders, lit cigarettes and sat about chatting to each other.  I decided to call it quits, figuring that if they were going to show this documentary all the way through I'd be there until gone midnight.

So a fun and memorable night, although probably entirely for the reasons the organisers intended.  Fire-based drama aside there is some really neat work in this exhibition, a smorgasbord of artistic diversity laced through with a neatly anti-establishment philosophy.  I'd recommend checking it out this weekend while it's at Louise Blouin, as it's moving from Sunday somewhere else.  Thanks to the organisers for having me!

POP MODERN: is at the Louise Blouin Foundation, 3 Olaf Street, W11 4BE from 29 August to 1st September, 9am-6pm and then at Westbourne Studios, 242 Acklam Road, W10 5JJ from the 2nd to the 15th of September.

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