BY Tim Martin in Reviews | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

Critical Decor

BY Tim Martin in Reviews | 02 JAN 97

Critical Decor have always sought to challenge the London art world. With their first show here for several years, they seem to have consolidated their critical practice while still keeping within a tragi-comic scenario. Their aim was to make eight works, each one addressing a different mythology within the practices of the avant-garde. For example: Just Because (all works 1996) follows the strategy of institutional critique seen in much Conceptual art; Infinity Painting plays the persistent art hand of addressing death; Melt remarks on the dematerialisation of the art object; Silence plays out the Punk strategy of refusal; Green Landscape pumps the righteousness of ecological art; and Bollocks takes Abstract Expressionism by the proverbials.

Critical Decor, or rather, David Pugh and Toby Morgan, seem to have a relationship of productive contradiction that helps keep them in flux. It is as if the working relationship were formed on the assumption of differences but with the ability to take pleasure in them. One is 'kynical' the other is 'cynical', which is to say one doubts power when he speaks, the other knows that power lies, but lies best when it tells the truth. There is something valuable in this medley of cynicisms because it allows them to make obvious something which is now quite accepted in a post-ideological age: we know what we are doing, but we do it anyway.

Critical Decor are engaged in making art, and they know that this process involves a strategy. They know that making art means deploying a myth or an ideological fantasy, be it Punk refusal, the preciousness of the object, social justice or torrential self-expression. Each piece in the show, then, deals with a different myth-as-art, with rather human and mixed results. When effective the works release a particular quality or aspect of art, and then take it away again. This is their critical practice: to stimulate our preconditioned expectations of the avant-garde and then leave those expectations exposed for the benefit of our own self-reflection. Each of the various paintings and sculptures call upon a myth to sustain them as art, which is to say they call for 'belief', but they never seek to induce action in the world outside the gallery. They call simply for more and different myths, more and more art.

By addressing strategies of art-making and promotion, Critical Decor do not fail to play the game of meaning-making in an interesting way. They detest the pathetic fallacy of art, whereby an artist's tortured soul, depth of emotion or sweat and tears, are allowed to tug at our powers of empathy and sense of guilt. Their humour takes on a cooler pleasure in its own right, beyond any specific joke. After all, we all know that art is a commodity and a fetish. This condition has its own pleasures and humour, not the least of which is the chance to make art works which act like symptoms of illness to the various 'universal' principles of art that circulate amongst the London avant-garde. Critical Decor simply point out that the avant-garde, like the emperor, is always naked, no matter how magisterial the demeanour.

This show might be mistaken for a bit of homespun Deconstruction, as if Morgan and Pugh had picked apart these art strategies so far that they lost their function. This isn't really the case though, as Critical Decor do, in the end, use and need the myths they unravel. There is something in each work that wants and needs these fantasies, even if the artists know that they proceed by misrecognition. This is most apparent in Moving Mountains and Pennies, which remain the best two works in the show. Critical Decor's knack has been to give the lie to art, yet at the end of the day remain honest to the facts of desire. In lieu of their contempt for fallacy in art, this constitutes a valuable honesty.