The Russian Club Gallery, which opened in 2008 in a former snooker club in Hackney and is programmed by London-based artist Matt Golden, takes a refreshingly straightforward approach to exhibition making. Two artists, selected by Golden, are invited to show in the sky-lit, oak-beamed space, where they present old, new or – as was the case with Rupert Ackroyd and Alison Turnbull – collaborative work. The result, which has seen the gallery attract a loyal following, has been a series of 11 elegantly presented pairings of predominantly object-based work by British artists.
Green Oak Aqua Modern (2011), the single work that comprised Ackroyd and Turnbull’s exhibition, was very much in keeping with this unassuming modus operandi. Ackroyd constructed a six-metre-wide wall made from a structure of green oak beams, which were left exposed to form a two-by-five grid onto which Turnbull painted a series of interlocking rectangles in cool oranges, blues and browns. The design was based on the soft, rounded corners of the Aqua Modern wallpaper pattern, which was popular in the UK during the 1960s – a Modernist tube map that was repeated on both sides of the structure. The motif on the front (or entrance side) of the wall was a 20 percent magnification of the reverse, emphasizing the differing encounters with the wall: up close as you enter, and from afar when viewed from inside the gallery. Such plays of scale, reminiscent of cartographic motifs, have long characterized Turnbull’s meticulous approach to painting – her 2010 exhibition at Matt’s Gallery, for example, took as its starting point the ground plans for an observatory built by Thomas Jefferson.
Ackroyd’s structure, which was based on a technique used in timber framing for centuries and which the artist learnt under the tutelage of a master oak framer, speaks of a quintessentially English vernacular, very much in line with the sculptor’s recent explorations into the aesthetics of tradition. Combined or overlaid with Turnbull’s pared-down interior designs, this situated Green Oak Aqua Modern in a bygone age, marrying formalism with English restraint, a reserved riposte to fussy, contemporary concerns – artistic or otherwise.
Ackroyd and Turnbull’s collaboration also sought to un-pick some of the staple discussions around Modernism and Minimalism. The soft rectangles, which worked their way over, under and in-between Ackroyd’s timber grid confused fore- and background planes, recalling Mondrian’s yellow, blue and red compositions, which Turnbull saw at the Centre Pompidou’s recent ‘Mondrian / de Stijl’ survey. Green Oak Aqua Modern was at once architectural intervention, sculpture and painting; surface sat within structure, while front and back were interchangeable. It was a work of art in discussion with itself about itself.
With Green Oak Aqua Modern adopting formalist syntax within a conceptual framework that drew on the history of British architecture and design, it was surprising that novelist Tony White’s accompanying text sought to reposition the show, via a satirical mock newspaper article, within the grubbier context of Arts Council funding cuts. A ‘report’ from the Daily Express adopted a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the works as a ‘barricade in all but name’ with Ackroyd, Turnbull, Golden and White supposedly accused by British MPs Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey of ‘conspiracy to exhibit’ and for distributing a broadside entitled ‘Auto-Destructive Arts Policy’ (a reference to White’s friend Gustav Metzger’s 1959 manifesto). White’s text, though a sharp, witty piece of satirical writing, needlessly attempted to drag Green Oak Aqua Modern into the UK’s somewhat fraught cultural-political landscape. As such, he chose not to address the work on its own terms: as a dialogue, instigated by an artist/curator, between sculptor and painter, exploring the qualities, nuances and trajectory of their media. For some, such parameters are enough.