Too many cultural discussions still take place within a specious idea of nationalism, where the names of nation states are utilised as supposedly meaningful adjectives. For instance: ‘British art." Does this mean Gilbert & George, Tony Cragg, Bridget Riley, Art & Language, Richard Long, Victor Burgin, Richard Hamilton, Bill Woodrow or David Hockney? Is ‘British art’ supposed to imply all of the above?
Nationalist-based categories are becoming particularly absurd now that air transportation and communications have made the world a smaller place. The West is beginning to look more and more the same (more ‘American’?). Oh, of course there is the cheese of France, the Monarchy of Britain, and the German-ness of Germany – but the most significant division, of ideology and material circumstances, are now more aligned across national borders that within the terms of any national consensus: gender, ethnicity , sexual orientation, class, urban versus non-urban, education levels, even age are more meaningful demarcations than the colour of your passport.
This is all of course to get to my ambivalence, and perhaps my ignorance, of what ‘British art’ is, what it is supposed to mean, and specifically what it means that London’s Lisson Gallery is currently exhibiting ‘ 40 young British artists’. Does the idea of a ‘British art’ have any use value other than its market utility in a commercial arena still circumscribed by nationally-defined economies and mentalities? Of course, there is my (nationalised?) prejudice: In general, we in New York don’t think much of the young British art: or rather, the work that has been curated into New York during the past two seasons hasn’t wowed us.
Still, what is impressive about Lisson’s ‘Wonderful Life’ is that it actually looks like something, that it holds together as a group and at the same time seems ‘different’ from what one would expect from the Lisson, or from London. (Did I expect more of that minimal-derived sculpture with some wood and metal utilitarian objects thrown in ?) And ‘Wonderful Life’, refreshingly, doesn’t look particularly American to me either. This ‘non-American’ quality is important because it indicates that the artists are not attempting to merely mimic the art that is currently most-often promoted in international art magazines – the art that , like Levi’s and Coca Cola, has been imperialising Europe since the US switched from colony to coloniser status after the War. At the same time, this work looks informed and sophisticated; the ‘difference’ is not an indication of ignorance or hell-bent refusal but rather of an integrity and an independence less about ‘national identity’ than the inevitable distinction of an art engaged with the historical specificity of its own time and place.
While generally beholden to the visual austerity of 70s minimal and conceptual art, the works in ‘Wonderful Life’ freshly beat out from the false sense of objectivity and over-valuation of formalism that led Minimalism, in all its ‘nationalised’ versions, to an immanent and antiseptic death. Given that many artists I’ve seen before look better here than they have elsewhere, it seems that the eye of the curator is responsible for the generally high level of the selections. This despite the fact that the curatorial premise of the show is terrible. The exhibition title is taken from biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s book ‘Wonderful Life’, and the worst work in the show is that wh9ich directly coincides with the framework of contemporary science as either interesting or absolute. While admittedly useful, science is only a dry fiction and , like formalism, shouldn’t be invested with mythic qualities it doesn’t except as over-determined metaphor, possess.
Similarly, there is nothing natural about nature: nature only exists for us through the aculturised perspective we bring to it. This is one of the insights suggested in Brighid Lowe’s installation, which offers a wooden bench that looks out the gallery’s second floor window. When seated, the viewer’s line of vision is intercepted by a posterised photograph of a waterfall that becomes framed by the school (education) and the bricks of concrete (urbanisation) just outside. A similar disturbance of the falseness of the nature/culture dichotomy is wryly provoked in two computer-manipulated colour photographs by Stephen Murphy: in one , of a field of daises, the outline of a skull and cross-bones surfaces from within the floral ground while in the other, luscious leaves of trees reveal the word hell.
So much of the photography in the exhibition exudes a wonderful quality of restrained visual seduction: the high contrast black and white works frequently refer back to a kind of sentimentalised pictorial tradition and the colour works tend to rely on subtle palettes more than aggressive advertising tones. The ‘look’ of works by Thomas Gidley, Bridget Smith, and Sam Taylor-Wood and Georgia Vaux is wonderful, even though the objects of their gazes remain a little under-realised and formative. I especially like the choice of so many of the artists to mount their photographs on foam or aluminum and abandon the frame. On the other hand, the photographic works that depend on photography’s mechanics, such as those of Steven Pippin, Magnus Hammick and Christopher Bucklow, are regressive and dull: that Pippin can fabricate pinhole cameras or process in toilets is about as interesting as chimpansees who can ride tricycles.
Simon Patterson looks better than he has elsewhere, perhaps because the pieces here are more pointed than some of his other efforts. His Blue Paintings(1992), rendered in EEC blue and gold and politically-punning on Europe’s pseudo-sport television spectacle It’s a knockout/Jeux Sans Frontiéres, is wonderful as is his diptych to Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, perhaps the most important martyrs in Europe’s post-war ‘recovery’. Christine Borland, however, is unfortunately not well-shown; none of her three works are as good as others I’ve seen. And Damien Hirst becomes more and more less than the less he already was: his formaldehyde-filled Koons-tanks aren’t anything.
The subtle Breathing Made Easy(1992), by Jaki Irvine is one of the show’s hidden surprises. Wonderfully installed under a stairwell, a slide projector presents an indecipherable image (close-up of lung tissue rendered abstract?) less than a foot square onto the back of the bottom step while an audio instructs the viewer how to breathe. Quirky and off, the piece is refreshing in its refusal to grandstand and its adherence to an austere, and unconventional, economy of means. The works by Georgina Starr rely on a similar strategy that up-holds a minimalised emotive quality:Eddy 1/Whistle(1992), is a whistled tune devised by Starr from a pattern of paper arrows caught in the wind: and Crying(1993),is a four-minute video of the artist doing just that. What most sustains ‘Wonderful Life’ is the general refusal of all these young artists with few exceptions, to be had for cheap – if their gestures are as yet nascent, they are still imbued with a sense of directive that is neither completely derivative nor just sleight-of-hand. Or perhaps it’s just what we mean in America when we refer to ‘British reserve’?