New Contemporaries: Block 336, London
Once London Art Fair downed tools and collapsed booths for another year and a little respite for weary art feet was allowed, New Contemporaries arrived in town to fill the void of expectation and murmurings. Offering a unique insight into art schools rather than galleries today, (although expect the two crossover as a result), it is almost as though they planned it.
This is the second iteration of the latest edition after its inaugural presentation in Gateshead. We know the drill. A small panel of artists select work which is drawn together to form an exhibition, with the implicit promise of containing the next Turner Prize nominee. Over the seven decades it has been supporting emerging artists, New Contemporaries has established a phenomenal track record in delivering: the roster of artists who have been part of this annual event reads like a biennial list of artists. From contemporary figures such as Mark Lecky, Mike Nelson and Gillian Wearing to Laure Prouvost and Rachel Maclean in more recent editions, shore up the premise.
This anticipation can weigh heavily on the viewer, as no doubt it does on the selectors. This year George Shaw, Elizabeth Price and Caroline Achaintre were tasked with the job. Having worked with the latter back in 2013, I found myself forensically surveying traces of Achaintre's work in the selection. In Neil Carroll's use of colour and Irvin Pascal's forms and primitive references, I may just have found it.
The result of their selection is a diverse group of artists- 47 in total- which sprawl across the galleries at Block 336 in Brixton. This choice of venue feels significant: a sharp contrast to the ICA, the exhibition's host for the past few years. For all its reputation and Georgian splendour of its gallery spaces, the location feels somewhat removed from the actual production of these works, creating an awkward disconnect between being an audience and understanding the conditions, context and communities within which these works are likely to have been created.
Two film based works provided standout works. In Gabriella Hirst's ' There's Only So Much I Can Give You' (2016), the Australian born artist presents us with a woman sat at a bar singing soulful songs whilst wearing, what appears to be, an illuminated jukebox costume. The opening event saw Gabriella Hirst give a performance at an after-party. If the performance was anything like the film, it would have been hypnotic.
Seth Pimlott's four minute 16mm black and white film, 'Season of Doubt', (2015) was spellbinding. Tucked towards the back of the second room the vocals, musical composition and lyrics by Ladam Hussein of the band Cold Specks drew you over like a magnetic force. The film references 2014's Battle of Ferguson in Missouri and the images are based on protest images captured on the phones in its aftermath. Thought provoking, challenging and haunting, you will leave humming the score.
Two paintings have also remained in the forefront go my mind. Robbie O'Keeffe's joyous oil painting 'People on a Beach' (2017) which was spirited and hopeful, whilst Michaela Yearwood-Dan, 'Springs' (2016) evoked the tropics and transported you out of cold, concrete Brixton. This sense of the exotic references the fabricated version imposed upon the artists as a second generation Black British woman from the West Indies.
Across the selected works the politics of identity, cultural background and displacement are, perhaps unsurprisingly, repeatedly probed. Amongst them Melissa Magnuson's large format photograph Greenville, Mississippi (2016), Tom Hatton's photograph Now Here, (2016) and Jack Howell Evans installation CAMP (2017). Almost hidden from view in a darkened corner of the Block 336's cavernous space, the ability to overlook 'CAMP', whose political meaning is revealed in its title, is of course, the artist's point.
New Contemporaries, Block 336, London, 27 January - 3 March 2018. For events programme see http://www.newcontemporaries.org.uk/2017/exhibitions-and-events