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Bart Wells Gang

Bart Wells Institute, London, UK

Once upon a time in the west (of London's East End), the Bart Wells Gang arrived to stake their claim on the new cultural frontier. Squatting a warehouse in a stagnant pool of post-industrial buildings just the wrong side of Hackney's 'cultural corridor', this posse of artists moseyed between cultural worlds.

Mick Mee, an old-timer from London's badlands, provided the show's title, and his work set the tone. A ramshackle assortment of bric-a-brac props deployed by Mee on his Wild West-themed fundraising drives for a local hospice, this is the kind of grassroots folk art Jeremy Deller would kill to catalogue. The best of it suggests an East End Ed Kienholz alchemizing Americana out of Hackney dross: the rumpled torso of a grizzled gunslinger fashioned from an old leather jacket and a jokeshop mask, planted on a squat wooden chair like the accursed progenitor of Sarah Lucas' Bunny (1997).

Upstairs Francis Upritchard, who co-curated the show with Luke Gottelier, installed a brace of home-made mummies on the floor of the warehouse (Mummy 1, Mummy 2, all works 2001). They lay prone and stiff under a feeble electric light, reaching up towards you with pathetic malevolence. Pygmy in scale, ill proportioned and swathed in hospital dressings, their crooked forms were equipped with scant provisions for the journey to the post-industrial afterlife - one of them had a pack of cigarettes lashed uselessly to its waist. The more impudent of the pair peered up at you with its single glass eye, glaucous between the bandages.

Nearby was another piece of Upritchard's eccentric taxidermy, a snake as stiff as the bare boards it lay on, tapering unevenly from fanged head and thread tongue to comically waspish tail. As well as a rank of desiccated worms, shinily varnished and meticulously inscribed, the artist laid out a morgue of personal stereos caulked in fleshtone Fimo, their tender buttons as queasily curious as any David Cronenberg bio-tech hybrid. Creepy, funny and with an eccentric pathos, Upritchard's latter-day relics display a love of the diligent but wonky, combining craft and craftiness like a wickedly judged entry at the taxidermists' convention. Damien Hirst's shark suddenly seemed pompous and po-faced.

Harry Pye, a kind of stand-up conceptualist gadfly, presented works conceived by himself and executed by his pals. The best is a pastiche of a Pete Davies list painting containing Pye's fictitious acceptance speech for the Turner Prize, accompanied by a life-size papier mâché effigy of Pye in his Tate Britain T-shirt (he works in the bookshop there). A travesty of Gormleyian portentousness, the speech pays tribute, in hilariously incongruous terms, to a litany of luminaries who have helped him on the way to the top: 'Damien - You were my dexys, my bombers, my high'. 'Charles Saatchi - Thank you, I fucking love you man.' Whether Pye likes it or not, the inevitable result of his satire must be the rise of his own cult of personality. Turner Prize 2004?

Sam Basu's videos and sculpture also mined the home-made feel. His wacky Kung Fu short Psykick Boxer shows the artist's New Age alter ego running through his moves, and is refreshingly free of production values and solemnity. The finely titled Dog Type Magic promises to harness dog power to reunite us with our extraterrestrial souls. Like a cross between Kenneth Anger and the Kuchar brothers, it was brooding, intermittently beautiful and poetically silly. Basu's sculptures shared the films' lo-fi engagement with cosmology and (amateur) quantum physics. To quote the Psykick Boxer: 'See how the curse of the wandering mind has led me to the realm of the multi-dimensional!' Quite.

Gottelier's paintings linked the mercurial productivity of a wandering mind to a virtuoso feel for line, colour and interference. His works constantly interrupt their own riffs, a palimpsest of dissonant methods and rhythms. With titles such as Self-portrait as Luther Being Played by the Devil as a Pair of Bagpipes they are both gonzo and erudite, finding a fertile patch of paint-space where quotation (17th-century satirical cartoons) and improvisation can squirm around ecstatically. Like Philip Guston on Ex-Lax, the paintings overlaid bold, cartoonish figuration or flaccid spirals on a white ground contaminated with submerged colours and sporadic outbursts of pattern. Pubic bushes of paint scrawled from the tube offset obese and goggling eyeballs, amoebic psychedelia. Rich, strange and, like the rest of the show, a sign that craft and intellect can subsist in contemporary art, even if its 'frontier spirit' has become a confused cocktail of autonomy and dependency.

Issue 66

First published in Issue 66

April 2002
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