Given that the adjective ‘young’ has followed the late 1980s ‘Freeze’ generation of British artists around for over two decades now like a wheezing, albeit increasingly well-groomed dog, it’s perhaps unsurprising that few surveys of fresh UK talent have employed it in their titles over recent years. That the concurrent exhibitions ‘Young British Art’ at Limoncello and ‘Young London’ at V22 Workspace both did so signalled what, exactly? Both shows dealt in a certain directness of address (something arguably absent from British curatorial practice in the post-yBa years) but to wholly different ends.
The pamphlet accompanying ‘Young British Art’ consisted of five brief and incrementally debatable points: ‘1: This exhibition is a group show of 38 artists selected by the artist Ryan Gander’ (true). ‘2: The young artists chosen for this exhibition are all exceptionally talented individuals, who are British or live in Britain’ (Gander’s assessment of the artists’ talent aside, the welcome presence of Phyllida Barlow, born in 1944, suggests a definition of ‘young’ that is not wholly age-dependent). ‘3: All the works in this exhibition are black and white’ (apart, that is, from the pale purple and blues of Alice Browne’s oil paintings). ‘4: No curatorial themes are intentionally related to this exhibition, any other meaning derived from it is purely circumstance or coincidence’ (even if we take Gander’s word for this, there’s the question of the intended ‘meaning’ to which all others are apparently surplus, and whether this meaning is expressed in points 1–5, or rather in the way they are both proved and repudiated by the exhibition to which they refer). ‘5: Forwards’ (OK, to where?).
Of all these ground-clearing gestures, it was Gander’s insistence on a black and white palette that had the most immediate impact on the show, giving it a visual coherence within which chatter, wrangles and pillow talk between particular artists might take place. (There’s surely a joke here about the curatorial habit of ‘colour matching’ works to lend a group exhibition the feeling of effortless flow, and perhaps a not-quite-serious impatience with form as an impediment to ideas.) Covering the entirety of Limoncello’s modest floor space, Alex Farrar’s white carpet (TBC) (2010) became grimy as the show wore on, taking on the peppery colouration of The Hut Project’s Conceptual Beard (2011), a set of Baldessarian or Weineresque whiskers that offered a shortcut to artistic credibility. Aaron Angell impressed with Small initial copse for Ryan (2011), an image of toadstools sanded into the gallery wall that captured the dank, weirdly deathly aspect of fungal growth, while Iona Smith’s clear resin paperweight in the shape of a Venetian bridge, Separatio (You’ll See It When You Believe It) (2009), and Richard Healy’s mouth-blown vase, Offset (Study in White) (2011), employed their transparent materials to speak of corporeal exhaustion and the dream spaces beyond it. Matt Golden’s Looking at a Scottish Lake Dreaming of Mount Fuji (2008), a photograph in which Caledonian clouds stand in for a Japanese peak, was neatly paired with Simon Davenport’s Caald (2011), a shot of a molehill that might be mistaken for a mountain, while Simon Fujiwara’s sly, descriptively titled My Name on a Grain of Rice (2011) was a hackneyed tourist trinket that fantasized of its own elevation, via the equally hackneyed history of the artist’s signature, into high art. Perhaps inevitably, it was hard not to read ‘Young British Art’ as a part of Gander’s ongoing pro-wrestling bout with the business of seeing and thinking, feeling and trusting. This, though, was no bad thing. Here, his probing of the limit conditions of the survey exhibition was always smart, often funny and oddly moving in its substratum of earnest fandom.
Selected by anonymous curators, and offering nothing in the way of a rationale beyond its claim to be ‘a vibrant and detailed exploration of the next generation of London’s artistic talent’, V22’s inaugural show of 35 artists in its vast, 50,000-square-foot former factory space might have benefited from something of Gander’s self-reflexive spirit. There were some strong pieces here – among them Ed Atkins’s sense-jangling, flintily beautiful films, Gino Saccone’s queasy stereograms, Vanessa Billy’s deadpan studies in the co-dependency of objects, Laure Prouvost and Francesco Pedraglio’s tense, suggestive word games, Alice Channer’s poised essays in fabric – but if ‘Young London’ was to be believed, the ‘next generation’ is largely preoccupied with the production of sculptures that stack, lean, droop and drip as they contemplate their own elegantly tatty materiality. Doubtless work of this sort looks at home in V22’s rough textured galleries, but by showing so very much of it – and of such varying quality – the exhibition appeared to be not so much curated as styled, a problem only exacerbated by the absence of any textual explanation of how its particular take on ‘now’ was arrived at. If one does exist in the dark reaches of the unnamed curators’ hard drives, perhaps it resembles Gander’s five points, only with the rabbit holes paved over, and the escape hatches nailed firmly shut.
First published in Issue 141