Among the bushels of archive material collated in the phone book-sized publication ARTIST | WORK | LISSON (2017), which chronicles Lisson Gallery’s 50 years in the business, there is a reproduction of the invitation to its very first exhibition. This modest square of card announces the opening, in April 1967, of ‘a group show of paintings, graphics and sculpture’ by the young artists Terence Ibbott, Derek Jarman, Paul Martin, Keith Milow and Paul Riley – the majority of whom, like Lisson’s then-21-year-old founder Nicholas Logsdail, had studied at the Slade School of Fine Art. The invitation gives the new gallery’s address as 68 Bell Street, a northwest London thoroughfare on which Lisson (since 2016, a pan-Atlantic concern) maintains a space to this day.
Looking at the card in 2017, it’s impossible not to feel time at work – its continuities, its ruptures. Spare, authoritative and mutedly Bauhaus, the design has weathered pretty well – perhaps better (Jarman aside) than the list of exhibited artists. The strongest reminder that this is an artefact from a different art world, though, is the fact that the group show it promotes has no title, no veneer of curatorial logic. Instead, the invitation foregrounds medium in a manner that, from a contemporary perspective at least, combines charming ingenuousness with blunt commercialism, offering up those ‘paintings, graphics and sculpture’ like they were goods chalked on a greengrocer’s board.
What a difference five decades makes. In the years following its first show, Lisson established itself as a pioneering champion of artists associated with minimalism, conceptualism and the new British sculpture of the 1980s. These have more recently been joined by a number of more disparate (although still identifiably Lissonian) practices, including those of Ryan Gander, Haroon Mirza and Wael Shawky. In celebration of its demi-centenary, the gallery has partnered with The Vinyl Factory to stage ‘Everything at Once’, an exhibition of new and historical works by 24 artists from its (by any measure formidable) roster. The show is housed in the pale hulk of Store Studios, a vast 1970s former office block designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, who essayed the building’s stark, brutalist volumes in reassuringly patrician Portland stone.
The show takes its title from a 1966 letter sent to the editor of the Village Voice by John Cage. Here, following digressions on bircher muesli and ‘liveliness in the field of rock ‘n’ roll’, the composer dismisses ‘Meister Eckhart’s notion that the soul is so simple it attends to only one thing at a time’. The 13th-century German mystic may once have had a point, but for Cage ‘[n]owadays, everything happens at once and our souls are conveniently electronic (omniattentive)’. Is this a vision of unprecedented spiritual connectivity, in which technology erases all spatial and temporal distance? Maybe, but read today, when our souls, if we can still speak of such things, might best be described as conveniently digital (omnidistracted), it’s hard not to think of the composer’s words as darkly prescient.
Clearly, this is fertile – if not wholly unbroken – ground for a show to explore. ‘Everything at Once’ doesn’t do this, or rather it does so only by default. True, it features, in the words of its press release, ‘contemporary art [that] assaults us simultaneously from all angles and from anywhere on the globe’, but that might be said of just about any wide-ranging, internationally focused exhibition of recent times. Brush aside its diaphanous curatorial conceit and ‘Everything at Once’ is, at base, an example of that now-unfashionable dealer’s stand-by, the stock show, albeit one of uncommon size and sleekness. Given that it features a great deal of solid – and occasionally exceptional – work, this is really no bad thing.
If ‘Everything at Once’ doesn’t quite connect the dots between its 24 featured artists, then Ceal Floyer’s floor piece Taking a Line for a Walk (2008) certainly appears to have a go. Close by the entrance to the show, past a capsule display of Richard Deacon’s witty, calmly improbable sculptures, a blurry stripe of white paint begins to snake from under a closed lift door and across the gallery’s lino. Following it, we catch glimpses of Ai Weiwei’s arboreal casting Iron Root (2015) and Lawrence Weiner’s gnomic wall text Whole Cloth Stretched to the Limit (2013), and hear snatches of music from Rodney Graham’s film Vexation Island (1997), a tense, funny and oddly devotional hybrid of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the myth of Sisyphus. Continuing up a staircase, the stripe comes to an abrupt stop at the base of a wheeled apparatus, of the kind used to mark out football pitches. The paint has run dry, the game is over and we are no wiser to its rules. Floyer’s work takes its title from Paul Klee’s assertion that a drawing should be: ‘An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal.’ A purposeless amble feels like a good way to take in ‘Everything at Once’. Just be sure to step carefully in Dan Graham’s glass pavilion Two V’s Entrance-Way (2016), which dissolves architecture and bodies (and perhaps even our sense of our own, bounded consciousness) into its shimmering, disorienting panes.
While ‘Everything at Once’ is full of familiar names, it still has the capacity to surprise, not least in its selection of Julian Opie’s empty, stainless steel cabinets i. and t. (both 1998). Hovering somewhere between Donald Judd’s ‘specific objects’ and the fixtures of some vaguely sci-fi (and wholly chilling) medical facility, these nearly 30-year-old sculptures feel far fresher than the linear, affectless celebrity portraits for which the artist is now best known. Similarly, Anish Kapoor’s gigantic, suspended pith helmet At the Edge of the World II (1998) is a miracle of restraint when compared to, say, the Sauron’s tower of his ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012). Stare up into its throbbing, scab-dark interior for long enough, and you might believe it’s a portal back to a time when his work was more than a bombastic embarrassment.
Aside from Richard Long’s epic mural Peloponnese Line (2017), which the artist has conjured with swirling, muddy fingers, painting takes up little wall space at Store Studios. Stanley Whitney’s canvases, such as Prussian Blue (2017) are jazzy, deeply ocular improvisations on the grid, in which unlikely colour combinations pop and snap. A series of controlled detonations (not least of painterly givens), they fill the space with light and noise. Less lively is Allorra and Calzadilla’s Solar Catastophe (2012). Here, discarded solar panels are tessellated into an abstract painting, its tints and tones changing with the weather. Ecologists and painters would, I imagine, think it equally glib. Imminent disaster seems to haunt Tatsuo Miyajima’s Time Waterfall (2017), in which random digital numbers tumble down a dark pillar, one after the other, like bodies falling through a void. Is this a doomsday clock? How long have we got left? Another 50 years?
Lisson’s most recent signing is Laure Prouvost, who here presents her film Lick in the Past (2016), a woozy paean to youth. Intercut with footage of gasping fish and inky marine invertebrates, we see a group of teenagers, all athleisure and iPhones, cruising through downtown Los Angeles, then fetching up in a sun-baked parking lot, where they discuss their desires. ‘I would like your sweat to salt our soup,’ says one, with apparent nonchalance. Another wants to climb inside her lover’s stomach, ‘and feel the acid tickling my eyes’. Polymorphous perversity seems natural to these kids. Perhaps it’s the result of signal overload, or else an evolutionary adaption. Cage, I suspect, would have recognized the contours of their souls.
Main image: Lawrence Weiner, WHOLE CLOTH STRETCHED TO THE LIMIT, 2013, installation view, 'Everything at Once', 2017, Lisson Gallery, London. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery © Lawrence Weiner; photograph: Jack Hems
First published in Issue 192