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Dirk Bell, Kate Davis, Alan Michael

The Changing Room

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The Changing Room is located in a Victorian arcade filled with small boutiques, including Dreams bridalwear and Dainty Dimples baby and children’s clothes. The gallery is on the second floor, in what used to be the gentlemen’s fitting room for Menzies department store. It is now an ideal showroom for trying on ideas of various sizes.

Of course, no one expects art to fit perfectly. Art is useless - or at least should be freed from the constraints of being useful. In The Painter of Modern Life (1863) Baudelaire wrote that the artist ‘makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history’. In this the essential project of the contemporary artist seems to have changed little since the doors of this arcade first opened. This exhibition in particular, comprising modest yet intriguing works on paper and canvas, leant towards Baudelaire’s definition of modernity: ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’.

In recent years Glasgow-based artist Kate Davis has been much engaged with investigating the properties of the unmechanized world, notably in her series ‘Birds of Paradise’ (2001) sequence of drawings and models of improbable winged creatures. But lately her work has fused her attraction to unpredictable natural forces with an interest in the hamster wheel of fashion trends. For example, one of her works on paper, Untitled (2003), is a pencil study of a city in darkness, struck by lightning - but the lightning forks in shapes derived from recent Prada knitwear designs. The Make-up on the Clown’s Face (2002) is another pencil study, of a model with long plaits and a striped sweater, but the pattern has escaped from the jumper, draping the model’s head and shoulders in rogue zebra-striped streamers.

Alan Michael, the other Glasgow based-artist in the exhibition, is known for his skillful appropriation of motifs from works by 20th-century artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Lucien Freud, Amedeo Modigliani and Georgia O’Keeffe. His work is informed by a concern with cultural repression, specifically with how the use of certain kinds of imagery might be connected with a liberal political outlook. Previously he has replicated the Franco-approved alternative cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers and made eye-popping reconfigurations of Philip Pearlstein nudes.

Michael’s Untitled (Nightclub in Spain) (2003) is a painting based on a Michael Heath cartoon from his Private Eye strip ‘The Regulars’. Heath satirized the crowd who frequented the Soho pubs The Coach and Horses and The Colony Room from the 1960s onwards, including Francis Bacon, John Hurt, the writers Jeffrey Bernard and Elizabeth Smart, and the journalist Graham Mason. In addition to being boltholes for the artistic inebriated, both bars were also known for their tolerance of gay activity, before the decriminalization of ‘unnatural acts’ between men.

‘The Regulars’ was a black and white cartoon, but Michael uses a Yellow Submarine-esque palette to fill out the cavorting bodies of the characters and lurid details such as the multi-coloured warts on one drinker’s swollen nose. His other work in this exhibition, Untitled (Publishers) (2003), demonstrates his ability to work in various painterly styles. The painting is a Photorealist portrait of a long-haired man who vaguely resembles Aphex Twin Richard D. James. His face has been meticulously rendered on canvas in three differing sizes, looming out of the dark background in a manner inspired by the impressionistic nightclub scene in Lynne Ramsay’s film Morvern Callar (2002). This painting is all druggy detail, from the waxy complexion to the coloured irises half-swallowed by blank, engorged pupils.

Intoxication can also be traced in the work of Berlin-based artist Dirk Bell. Bell renders his sepia-toned drawings and paintings at speed, as if to grasp a train of fleeting associations. Certainly there is something beyond the reach of the known world in these four recent works on paper: romantic dream images of a girl with medusa-like hair, a girl who sleeps in an oversized umbrella. Perhaps his least symbolically loaded work depicts a man and woman embracing in bed, but this in itself recalls John Donne’s poem from 1633 ‘The Sun Rising’ - and the bed that becomes the centre of the world. It is a moment of poetry, and very romantic poetry, extracted from the parade of fashions we sometimes call history.

Sarah Lowndes

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by Sarah Lowndes

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