Situated in a former Greater London Council building in Hackney, MOT occupies half of what is now a light industrial space on the fifth floor. An important component in London's network of artist-run spaces, the gallery's programme offers an unpredictable mixture of homespun events and exhibitions. Their latest offering, 'The Full English', was conceived one morning in Dilaras, a local café. Taking its name and premise from a breakfast of sausages, eggs and bacon - the traditional British cure for the morning after the night before, which, thanks to the Atkins diet is now more popular than ever - the exhibition's title could have implied a shallow jingoism, or at least a late, dull reverberation of a strange brand of British patriotism. Yet one aspect of this collection of work belies this idea. With the exhibition aiming to present work that resemble products of an 'outmoded cottage industry', it managed to combine an honesty of materials with a healthy cynicism, or a tradition of craft with an excessive, or at least politely irresponsible, aesthetic sabotage.
Landscape and portraiture were two themes dealt with and, of the eight artists in the exhibition, Louise Harris was one of the most candid. Apparently she only works with three subjects: sex, blonde women and religion, each rendered in a specific medium. The biblical City on the Hill (all works 2003), a mixture of Modernist construction and amateur collage, is made with blocks of coloured felt. A number of crude buildings hover in the middle distance through a kind of kindergarten illusion. Vicky Wright's Poor Angus 'The Rotten Sun' occupies a similar aesthetic no man's land. Wright's painting is intended to be a portrait of a dog, or her boyfriend, or her boyfriend as a dog - I'm not sure which. The face has long eyelashes and brown, staring eyes, which imbues the picture with both a rough femininity and a sensitive masculinity. Kiera Bennett's unassuming work has a completely different take on landscape and portraiture. Her tiny, intricate collages are made from hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of coloured paper that combine to form photographic documentation of excessive nights out with an uncanny accuracy. Untitled represents the aftermath of uncertain events from the previous night and depicts a damp north London pub's beer garden in daylight. It takes a while to notice, but there's a noose hanging from a branch in a tree right in the middle of the picture. The strange melancholy and humour here are made all the more poignant by the craft-based, home-made or 'amateur' nature of the chosen medium.
In one respect MOT's intention to uncover a 'lost England, hidden away in studios, workshops and bedrooms' and focus on a variety of outmoded materials provided an unexpected context that, perhaps unwittingly, referenced historical characters such as Bernard Leach, whose skilled ceramics were based on an ethical concern for a simplicity of form and design. With the addition of what the curators termed 'gift shop Romanticism', a kitsch element that added a flavour of the thrift store, the exhibition positioned itself - without any apparent irony - between a puritanical tradition and a seductive aesthetic verging on repulsion. The artist who made the most use of this concern for traditional materials imbued with a disproportionate energy - one shared by artists such as Grayson Perry and Rebecca Warren - was Audrey Reynolds. Her repugnant The Taste in Your Arse consisted of a formless white sculpture shaped from dozens of ceramic flowers assembled into a mass to resemble a huge anaemic turd. Reminiscent of the now strangely defunct white dog litter that once graced the streets of the UK, the curious thing about it was how so many beautiful fragments had combined to produce something so horrific. Was this a celebration of unrestrained behaviour, a surplus of beauty or a lesson to us all; an indication that moderation is something to strive for?
Either way, Nicholas Symes' Driftwood Crabber, a small model boat cast with sawdust and glue from original driftwood forms, Pat O'Connor's 10 Badges of Miserable Models, a fur pinned with hand-painted badges picturing portraits of sulky rich girls, and other works by Russell Oxley and Nicola Ollis adhered to the scatological and charity-shop feel of the project. To varying degrees 'The Full English' displayed a humility of scale and an eccentric vigour. I would have liked to see this taken a little further, with an additional dose of irresponsible disruption. But then, in some respects, the very nature of this form of English practice depends precisely on its balance between modesty, excess and the danger of total collapse.
First published in Issue 80