'If the work I have made over the last 40 years [...] has a characteristic concern running through it, it is a concern with making a critique of art rather than a celebration of it.' So writes Terry Atkinson in the pamphlet accompanying this exhibition of some 60 of his paintings, drawings, assemblages and constructions, curated by Artemis Potamianou in close collaboration with the artist. The show focused on the work Atkinson has produced since 1974, when he left Art & Language, the group of radically innovative artist-theorists of which he was a founding member in 1968. It was of necessity a somewhat selective retrospective of material by what Potamianou rightly calls 'this crucially important British artist', whose prolific output might easily have occupied four or five times the available space. The show made abundantly clear that Atkinson's attempt at criticizing the conventional agendas of recent art practice has been a perceptive, vividly inventive compendium of strategies, ruses and artistic or 'aesthetic' moves.
It's difficult to use the word 'aesthetics' when considering Atkinson's work because of his radical disaffirmation of the conventions of art-making - including established notions of beauty, technical competence, viable or appropriate subject matter - and the function of the artist. His critical stance is visible in the way he tackles head-on stereotypical patterns of practice - for example, ideologies of expression and artistic skill are disturbed by the deliberately botched drawing methods deployed in works from the 1970s dealing with World War I. In a series of pieces made in the 1990s collectively entitled 'Enola Gay' (the name of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945) the spuriously pure artistic category of the monochrome is put under duress through deploying on each work's surface an image of an aeroplane shown flying directly towards the spectator. By placing an image of this dark and distressing technology within the ostensibly neutral field of an abstract work Atkinson emphasizes that Modernism is a product of the same contingencies that are responsible for the invention and use of atomic weapons. (This is to say nothing of the further resonances of these works as viewed after 11 September).
Atkinson's acerbic, convoluted titles and appended texts similarly act to intervene in the common-sense niceties of artistic practice, with the artist refusing to pander to the belief that artworks 'speak' above and beyond words. Chipboard-Pencil Axe-Head Enola Gay Mute (1991) is matter-of-fact descriptive but also dryly comical in import, raising the brute materiality of language to a point at which it might be easily inspected, rather than 'poetically' consumed. The use, in one wall text, of the phrase 'counterfeit forged seriousness' was more than a little apt, and especially so at a time when the serious and the authentic have themselves become hackneyed components of an artist's modus operandi.
Atkinson has described the art world as something of a swamp, a context wherein there is, today, no viable pathway or belief structure available to the artist, who is thus to a degree at the mercy of artistic fashions and indeterminate (but highly influential) market forces. Rather than merely alluding to this predicament, Atkinson vigilantly proceeds to stake out the territory, the underlying structure on which contemporary art - its markets, vanities and variegated investments - rests and in some peculiar way thrives. This is partly carried out by adopting subject matter in need (in Atkinson's view) of a critically charged commentary. In the 1980s, following the making of the World War I works and a number of paintings attending to aspects of tourism, the family portrait and the problematic genre of history painting, Atkinson made a body of work in which the political situation of Northern Ireland was paraded, parodied and otherwise unpacked. The considerable number of Irish works included in this retrospective (many of them not previously shown) reiterated just how politicized a practice Atkinson has maintained since his days with Art & Language, who have increasingly lost themselves in their own history while Atkinson continues to interrogate the material and philosophical structures on which such a practice - or indeed any other artistic enterprise - depends. Terry Mirrors (1999), a complicated installation dealing with the philosophy of mind and the most recent piece in the show, again took the artist's investigations into novel terrain. With Atkinson the going may be tough but at least we know we are on solid ground.
First published in Issue 74