Monday, May 19, 2014

'Tom Pike: Incidents and Accidents' at The Foundry Gallery

You're a prehistoric man standing in an arid savannah.  The world is windless and a creeping dread takes hold in your brain.  Gazing out into the billowing grass your eyes instinctively flicker at each anomalous motion.  Too often your mind has played tricks on you, but you know full well that somewhere out there lies a hungry creature composed of muscle and teeth and you're only one mistake away from winding your way through its guts as just so much meat.  

So what does the mindset of a paranoid caveman have to do with an art exhibition in leafy Chelsea?  Tom Pike's work, composed of chaotic tangles of colours and shapes tweaks the same part of our brains that we share with our ancestors: the instinctive desire to transform the random into the structured, to reorder reality in order to spot the hungry tiger in the grass.  We do this without thinking every day of our lives: stare into the static of a detuned television set long enough and faces begin to loom out at you; fixate yourself upon the ripples of a pond and the whole world ripples in response; random constellations of clouds transform into animals, objects and actions.  

The notion of wringing order from chaos runs right through Pike's work; and it's hardly surprising to learn that his background is in architecture, a discipline that seeks to impose order upon an analogue world.  At first glance a piece like Favela might appear to be the child of a shredder and a book of swatches, but stare for a while and you see the cool logic of its construction; the shards of text defiantly emerging from washes of paint.  These elements bleed together, mingling on the canvas and creating a visual creole.

The snatches of text, pictures and colour overlapping with each other remind me of the fascinating accidental juxtapositions that you see when they're scraping decades of accreted adverts from the wall of a tube station.  I feel a bit perverse enjoying this effect: when an advert is new, complete and where it's supposed to be it's an annoyance out to trick me into giving them my money.  But when it's sliced up and the years have rendered whatever it's hawking irrelevant it becomes something far more interesting.

Cut up like a Burroughs manuscript, old billboards become the geological strata of Western culture. Delve back through time far enough and you see the faces of the forgotten famous grinning back at you, outdated fonts and unfashionable colours leering through the white surf of torn paper edges.  Pike's Revelation is an artificial attempt to recreate this process of destruction, trying his best to wrangle a chaotic, unpredictable process into conveying some definite meaning.  But what meaning?

Though the sliced up compositions of this work hold our interest, it's worth stepping back a few paces and examining them as a whole.  The bright primary colours quote African and South American art (not to mention that one of them is actually called Favela).  There's a deeply embedded cultural resistance in Britain to avoid intense bright colour - possibly because we're oh-so-refined-and-tasteful, but maybe more prosaically because these are palettes that look best in direct, strong sunlight - of which we have precious little.

Warp and Weft
Warp and Weft, with the embedded rectangles studded across the canvas bring photographs of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to mind, or the slums of Quito to mind.  I imagine these places are what architects see in their nightmares; visions of a world without them.  Absent are careful planning, individualistic design, any consideration of how people move through a space and any conscious understanding of mood and history in the buildings.  In their place is are make do and mend constructions born of necessity; rickety piles of scrabbled corrugated iron succeed as buildings if they a) keep the rain off, b) keep the sun off and c) don't collapse and crush the inhabitants. 

Things come to a bit of a head in my favourite work, Aftermath.  Here the decollage effect manages simultaneously represent order and chaos - the design tangled and torn, yet progressing in relatively straight lines until *boom*, it's all disrupted by a wound in the design. This was described to me as an explosion, but I can't help but read it as an implosion, the gravity of the piece collapsing in on itself like a black hole - consuming itself.

There's a subtle satire here; the artist combining imagery and colours associated with the world's poorest people, splicing it with torn up fragments of British adverts and pop culture and placing the result in the gleaming white environment of a Chelsea art gallery; selling it in the middle of one of the richest neighbourhoods on the planet.  Presumably, given their surface cheeriness, more than a few of these will spend their days brightening the walls of the locals, something colourful to stand out against intense monochromatic designer chic.  Placing a little window into poverty in the midst of such opulence is a cheeky move, a subconscious reminder of the chasm between the rich and poor.

Perhaps I'm looking too deeply into the grass, seeing hungry tigers when there's nothing but random ripples of wind.  Running away from something that doesn't exist might sound overly skittish, but that's the nature of apophenia. Reading something as being about economic divisions and exploitation says more about my sensibilities than those of the artist, but I can't help but see (and enjoy) what I see. After all, it's better to run away from an imaginary tiger than to be caught by a real one.  

Unfortunately I attended the final day of the exhibition, but you can find out more about Tom Pike here:

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