BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

Keith Coventry

BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 07 JUN 97

Keith Coventry has a dog called Jack. It's a lurcher ­ a kind of crossbreed hunting dog that's particularly popular in the North. Coventry takes his daily constitutional with Jack, moving through the mixed environs of South London, following different routes, criss-crossing and back-tracking over a wide area that extends from Brixton to Deptford, and Forest Hill to Jamaica Road. It is an area that includes vast tracts of council housing, endless tower blocks and sprawling housing estates.

It is for his series of 'Estate Paintings' that Coventry is perhaps most well known. They're derived from those familiar coloured maps found at the entrance to housing estates, and are painted in the geometric abstract style of Russian Suprematism. In a clear, calm manner, they bridge the chasm of a whole history of promised social utopias and the present day reality of down-at-heel shabbiness and broken-windowed decay. One wonders what the imprisoned residents of Gateway Estate (1994) would make of Malevich's pronouncement on architecture, that 'Suprematism has opened up new possibilities to creative art, since by virtue of the abandonment of so-called "practical considerations", a plastic feeling rendered on canvas can be carried over into space' (The Non-Objective World, 1959).

There are two of these 'Estate Paintings' in Coventry's exhibition, Gateway Estate and Portland Estate (both 1993), and they act as an introduction to a selection of work produced over the last five years. The most recent includes a video called W.A.F.S. Update (1997). It is quite an odd piece of work. Essentially it's a re-make of a 1940 Women's Auxiliary Fire Service recruitment film. Based exactly on an original shooting script Coventry found in a skip, the film has been re-staged in the present with contemporary uniforms, sets and props. It's directed and acted dead-pan, but the end result is a short comic masterpiece. Tracing the humour isn't easy though. In part it's the anachronistic language, along with the gentle manners and the camp politeness. But, perhaps, it's mostly the exposed innocence: a disrobing effect that lays bare of a set of out-moded values.

If W.A.F.S. Update points to the disappearance of a set of traditional values, then the large bronze Looted Shop Front (1997) stands as monument to their violent collapse. Retrieved by Coventry after the 1995 Brixton riots, it's a whole shop-front window-frame complete with broken glass shards still attached. Cast in bronze and given an aged patina, it stands flush against one of the gallery walls. Behind it, the whiteness of the wall fills the jagged-edged space, suggesting a moral and spiritual emptiness ­ well, empty shopness at least.

A similar bronze is the earlier Burgess Park (1994). At around five feet high, it's a cast of a young slender sapling. Originally planted in Burgess Park, an urban green space created in the 80s in an area of mass housing, the sapling unfortunately didn't survive. Its

upper part was snapped off by vandals, the damage too severe to repair. The cast includes the sapling's wooden pole support which, with its leather straps, is now more reminiscent of some kind of crude leg calliper. Tragic and suffused with despair and hopelessness, Burgess Park is an unexpectedly moving sculpture. It's so palpable ­ that casual directionless violence that has become the calling card of a bored, frustrated underclass.

Another new work in the show is the wall-sized painting Chartwell (1997). It pulls together Churchill's idea of painting as a leisure activity, the large brick wall Churchill built between 1927 and 1932 to surround his house Chartwell in Kent, and Coventry's own use of painting as a therapeutic pastime. There are 60 oak-framed canvasses, each 26› x 24›, depicting a section of brick wall. Like Churchill's painting, which didn't improve in 40 years, all the panels of Chartwell are basically the same and follow a repetitive pattern. Yet it shows no sign of the obsessive. As with Coventry's other paintings, it has a cool, sensuous quality. The impasto surface is restrained and thoughtful, and the two-tone colour scheme ­ Mars Orange Red and Warm Light Grey ­ soothing.

Though Coventry manages to bring together the legacies of Modern Art with social and cultural issues, he retains a position of aesthetic detachment. It's an idiosyncratic kind of art that resists easy categorisation. It's neither old fashioned nor new fashioned. Sensuous and restrained, it's timeless in its own way. And all the while it's grounded in the reality of Coventry's day-to-day surroundings of housing estates and skips, urban parks and riot-torn streets. Quite an achievement really.