London According to: Alex Harrison from Public Gallery

The Petticoat Lane gallery won the Focus Stand Prize at Frieze London 2023. As it takes part in Condo London 2024, its co-founder picks his local highlights

BY Chris Waywell in Frieze London , Interviews | 20 JAN 24

Co-founded in 2020 by Alex Harrison and Harry Dougall, Public Gallery near Petticoat Lane in London’s East End is focused on emerging artists. At Frieze London 2023, the gallery won the Focus Stand Prize for its presentation of the work of Londoner Adam Farah-Saad. Harrison talks through his city and neighbourhood, and recommends some local highlights.

Favourite restaurant/café in your area?

Luckily we’re really spoiled for food options around us. For a healthy lunch, we all love Grain Kitchen on Harrow Place or Kastner & Ovens on the corner of Frying Pan Alley and Bell Lane. There’s also an Italian café called Fazenda on Harrow Place which does the best coffee.

Fazenda. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery
Antonio Battisti and Annarita Baioni, owners of Fazenda. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery

Best pub near the gallery?

Being drawn to more traditional pubs it would have to be The Pride of Spitalfields, which is just off Brick Lane on Heneage St and has been around since the 1850s. The staff is mostly multiple generations of one family and it has that kind of homely lived-in feeling that is impossible to replicate.

The Pride of Spitalfields. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery
The Pride of Spitalfields. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery

Your most recommended local business?

The streets near the gallery are home to the Petticoat Lane Market (a fashion and clothing market that goes back to the early 1600s) so many of the local businesses are textile-related. Along those lines, Watson & Sons on Wentworth Street is my go-to for any clothes that need repairing or altering. They’ve been going for decades and are always friendly and careful with their work.

Favourite museum or gallery in London?

Keeping very local: Raven Row on Artillery Lane. They’re a non-profit space inside a beautiful renovated townhouse with such an engaging programme that never fails to offer a discovery. One that comes to mind was a show of DIY television from the 1970s they presented earlier this year. Many of the videos on display were sourced from the BBC Community Programme Unit, a broadcasting team that put editorial control in the hands of people whose voices are so often neglected.

‘People Make Television’ at Raven Row. Photo courtesy Harry Dougall / Public Gallery
‘People Make Television’, 2023, at Raven Row. Photo Eva Herzog

Favourite exhibition in London at the moment and the last exhibition you went to?

Recently, Max Hooper Schneider at Maureen Paley. I’ve seen his work a few times – at Frieze New York with Francois Ghebaly – but this is the first proper exhibition of his I saw and I was blown away by the work and his dizzying use of materials. Another incredible show is the Henry Taylor survey at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Which emerging artists excite you at the moment?

Unsurprisingly, I’m excited by all the artists on our roster and upcoming programme! We’re thrilled to start the new year with a solo exhibition of new works by Victor Bengtsson for Condo London, during which we’ll also be hosting PEANA from Mexico City. They’ll be presenting new works by Vica Pacheco in our lower-level gallery space – she’s an exciting artist whom I’ve only recently come across through this collaboration. Outside of this there are so many that come to mind, one in particular is Abbas Zahedi, whose practice explores new modes of connectivity and sites of communality – his installation in The Regent’s Park as part of the Frieze Artist Award last year was a perfect example of this ability to bring people together.

Victor Bengtsson, studio view, 2023. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery
Victor Bengtsson, studio view, 2023. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery

What’s great about your gallery’s location?

Being so close to Whitechapel Gallery, right in the midst of parts of London I’ve hung out in since I was a teenager. It’s also a little untouched pocket which is particularly charming in the context of the neighbouring glass skyscrapers and new developments. Our gallery is situated in a very special 1960s brutalist estate; it was built around the same time and in similar style to the Barbican, which means we have really distinctive architecture and an unusual three-storey footprint.

Middlesex Street. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery
Middlesex Street. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery

Can you explain the ethos behind the gallery and what unites your artists?

The gallery has evolved and grown really organically. We’re most interested in working with artists who deal with present-day issues in a unique way and subvert traditional modes of seeing or thinking. Our process is as instinctive as it is analytical, and equally about the work as much as the person. We’re building a relationship so it’s important to connect on a personal level and really enjoy collaborating with the people we show.

What changes have you seen in your local area since the gallery opened? What changes would you like to see in the future?

In the last few years, hardly anything has changed, which is really quite a comforting thing in London! In the future, I’d love to see our building be listed and protected from being redeveloped, and of course would always be happy to see more galleries opening up nearby.

What sets the London art scene apart from those of other cities (your local art scene in particular)?

The sheer number of local scenes that can cater to galleries at all different levels, enabling a real breadth and diversity of programming that feels unique. There’s also a genuine spirit to collaborate and maintain the overall health and ecosystem of the art world here.

Why would you recommend this area to art lovers new to London?

It’s a perfect place to begin for those wanting to see a different viewpoint to Mayfair. Start with Whitechapel Gallery, head up to Union Pacific, Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix, Public, Raven Row, then over to Emalin, Hales Gallery, Kate MacGarry and Maureen Paley: Studio M in Shoreditch. To make a proper day of it you could even walk onwards from there to all the great galleries in Bethnal Green, finishing up at Chisenhale Gallery.

Whitechapel Gallery. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery
Whitechapel Gallery. Photo courtesy Alex Harrison / Public Gallery

Best thing about London?

The history. Despite having grown up here I constantly catch myself staring at old buildings and imagining the stories and conversations that have happened over the centuries. We’re also lucky that a lot of the history, art, architecture and culture can be enjoyed in London for free, which is becoming increasingly uncommon in a global sense.

Worst thing about London?

I wish we had more defined seasons!

Public Gallery is taking part in Condo London 2024, hosting Peana (Mexico City), 20 January–17 February 2024.

Public Gallery, 91 Middlesex St, London, E1 7DA. 

Main image: Steph Huang, ‘I will see you when the week ends’, 2023, installation view at Public Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Public Gallery, London

Chris Waywell is Senior Editor of Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.