Titled ‘Revolver’, this series of three exhibitions presented a rotating roster of mostly early- to mid-career, mostly London-based artists, while also responding creatively to the cuts to the arts in the UK. This is important to note because, while on the face of it, the publicly funded Matt’s Gallery – which has underpinned some of the most vital art in London since its founding in 1979 – came out reasonably well, with Arts Council funding assured up to 2015, the current structure of these ‘National Portfolio’ awards precludes further vital one-off grants. The story is not new: ever since Margaret Thatcher set about disbanding the culturally generous, left-leaning city councils (including the Greater London Council) in the mid-1980s, smaller UK arts organizations – those with a long-term focus on project development – have had an extremely tough ride. Under the present coalition government, arts organizations are again under threat. Some have started to fight back by banding together: the advocacy group Common Practice, which aims to defend the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London, includes Matt’s Gallery as well as Afterall, Chisenhale Gallery, Electra, Gasworks, LUX, Mute Publishing, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire, all of which are a vital part of London’s artistic lifeblood.
Curated by Matt’s director Robin Klassnik and artist Richard Grayson, ‘Revolver’ appeared to be an exhibition-level response to this funding climate. But it was also something of a capitulation to the product-over-process criteria of funders: rather than the format that Matt’s Gallery is known for (i.e. an extended development period resulting in a new commission and solo exhibition), the three shows that formed ‘Revolver’ were a medley of older and more recent works assembled in loosely thematic frameworks. Part one featured three artists – Layla Curtis, Andrew Kötting and Juneau Projects – exploring that most British of art genres, the landscape. The bucolic topic might gladden any Conservative-voter’s heart, were it not for the works themselves, which consistently resisted the quaint or sublime. Juneau Projects (Philip Duckworth and Ben Sadler) presented their absurdist ‘Capexagon Series’ (2012): hexagonal paintings made with the aid of computer-controlled brushes. Footage of the artists at work en plein air with their devices recalls earlier quasi-ironic engagements with the landscape, such as Gilbert & George’s The Nature of Our Looking (1970). Kötting’s brilliant slapstick film Klipperty Klöpp (1984) features the artist running in circles in a field, as if galloping on an invisible horse, to a spoken soundtrack of joyous linguistic contortions. Curtis’s Tong Tana (2012) took a different tack: she spent a month in the rainforests of Borneo with the semi-nomadic Penan tribe as they hunted for food. Curtis’s innovative technique was to persuade a hunter to go out on his usual solo hunt with a lightweight camera and microphones strapped to his head, enabling us to see the jungle from his point of view.
The second part of ‘Revolver’ covered a surprising stylistic range, from the poised re-assembling of language (Anna Barham), photographic conceptualism (Graham Gussin) and glam reflexivity (Tai Shani), and centred on processes of textual readings and misreadings. Barham’s Arena (2011) comprises a circular wood and MDF seating structure that houses a set of speakers on which play audio recordings of the artist reading from her book Return to Leptis Magna (2010). An exercise in concrete or systems poetry, the text consists of a long string of words that are all anagrams of the title, the effect being mesmeric and pleasurably absurd (anagrams include ‘utmost genial partner’ and ‘get unimportant laser’). Gussin’s Lens (2012) consists of 22 sepia-toned photographs taken at a hotel on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, a site apparently used by Wim Wenders in his film The State of Things (1982) – the plot of which revolves around a film crew, holed up in an abandoned hotel, waiting for funding to arrive to enable them to complete their work. In contrast to Gussin’s sobriety, Shani’s equally meta-textual Headless/Senseless (2011) spun off into more fantastical realms. Comprising a series of wall-mounted circular framed holographic photographs, this installation’s real punch comes from the soundtrack, which mixes up the stories of two fictive actresses and a dark, magical realist narrative about a beheading.
The final iteration of ‘Revolver’ featured works by William Cobbing, Benedict Drew, Tina Keane and Rachel Lowe. Several main strands emerge here: performance, corporeality and moving-image experiments. Cobbing’s performance-based videos Demolition, Excavation and The Kiss (all 2004) feature the artist with his head completely encased in a ball of mud as if struggling with the sheer materiality of existence. Drew’s The Persuaders (2011) similarly deploys a recurrent face motif – his video and overhead projector-based installations are like terse quips on anthropomorphism. Lowe’s Revolving Woman (2008) is an enigmatic short video loop of a mannequin with exaggeratedly erect nipples, slowly spinning in a window display in a shopping mall. Keane’s Demolition/Escape (1983) consists of a model train track, a series of illuminated neon lights of the numerals one to nine, and a stack of video monitors showing a performance piece in which the artist crawls and then climbs a ladder. Of an older generation than the other artists here, Keane might be said to be a founding figure in the aesthetics of performance and expanded video, as variously explored by Cobbing, Drew and Lowe.
But while the interesting works in ‘Revolver’ pointed towards genealogies and a shared spirit of production, the exhibition sequence felt unresolved. Significantly, ‘Revolver’ didn’t have the artistic weight of Matt’s Gallery’s earlier development-led solo exhibition format which flourished when Arts Council money for projects was more forthcoming. Nor did it have the discursive rub of curated exhibitions. Nevertheless, these three shows did fruitfully point to a tradition of art that seeks validation in like-minded communities, and evaded the preoccupation with the young and fashionable that haunts both the commercial sector and many publicly funded gallery spaces as they scramble to stay on-pulse and funder-friendly.