This is the first of an approximately monthly column called ‘Imaginary Bang’, a column about art shows.
The Royal Drawing School, Shoreditch
Somewhere in the 1960s, Art as we knew it pushed forth its final exasperated breath and gave up the ghost becoming, at long last what it had only ever wanted to be, Theory. Or so some would have us believe. And so what are we to do, many years on, when it seems that it has all been said and done? Everything having dissolved into nothing and everything, into Idea, into Word. We have been at this juncture for some time now, in a desperate quest for the new, not sure whether the search is futile, semi-certain that there is nowhere else for art to go. Video game, AI, the Internet? Does it feel right? Does it feel good? Does it feel new? Oh the interminable pain of the futurist! I say all this to say, that in 2023, drawing feels not just antiquated but outrageous. That’s why it felt funny, sexy and wrong to go to the Royal Drawing School earlier this month to see their final year show. The School’s show was in Shoreditch by that Big Mamma restaurant Gloria in a room the size of a Tesco Metro. There was hardly an inch of free space between the drawings of the 30 freshly diploma’d artists on show. The night combined the frantic panic of a Black Friday sale with the jubilant (and tiresome) celebration of a high school awards ceremony.
I was there to support Lily Snowden-Fine (@lilyfine), Canadian artist and former voice of Peppa Pig. Her work is traditional, certainly, and purposefully, it is after all (as the exhibition label described) inspired in part by her love of antiques. It is realist in style, drawn with oil pastels, and feels specific to Fine’s world and perhaps for that reason contemporary. Her work (honestly) was one of my favourites, especially The Light Sleeper (Fig. 1) — who after all has not been there?
Figure 1: Lily Snowden-Fine, The Light Sleeper
Dalston has the feeling of cheap sleazy lawlessness which somehow insists on remaining deeply unexciting. I did however enjoy the evening I spent at Moriah Ogunbiyi and Scarlett Pochett’s Papillon. It was held in a subterranean event space called Dalston Den. Scattered across the room, usually used for nightclubbing, was sculpture, photographs and moving image made mostly by Slade School students. The show had the DIY feel of student endeavours, full of enthusiasm and collagen, it was on show only for two nights.
The curators (who also presented work) were a charming pair with ambitions to expand their evening into an ongoing series. The theme of the show was transformation, using the quite literal metaphor of the cocoon to the butterfly (butterfly being papillon in French). The show included many insect-like forms, the dingy basement feel was effective in giving the impression that you’d lifted up an old damp log. I particularly enjoyed the symmetry of the works of two artists who had not met before that night — I sidled up to them as they chatted to each other busily about their respective practices. Femi Themen (@femisaskia) is a student at the Slade School, her piece was a long black rod which protruded from the wall dipping its finger into a crab-like vessel filled with a viscous black substance, it spoke to (as she described) diaspora and connection (Fig. 2). Duncan McAllister (@dunmca), an architecture student, hammered lead sheets into a pillow like shape which hung loosely over a metal shelf, a block of concrete suspended from its neck (Fig. 3).
Figure 2: Femi Themen, Untitled (2023)
Figure 3: Duncan McAllister, Veil (2023)
Women’s Work is Never Done, Richard Saltoun, Mayfair
I saw Women’s Work is Never Done at Richard Saltoun near Green Park station, a part of town which feels particularly glittering with money at this time of year. It was a unique affair in that it was a retrospective not of an artist but of a curator, it looked back at the career of Catherine de Zegher. Zegher is a Belgian curator, who has had a near 40 year long curatorial career, her work over the years has championed the careers of female artists, many of whom, she notes, have not achieved the same attention and acclaim as their male counterparts. Zegher curated the retrospective. It was sensitive and intellectual, included artists who I love such as Mona Hatoum, and Edith Deykndt (a favourite of mine who I reviewed last month). At the opening, Bracha Ettinger (artist and philosopher whose work also featured) spoke about her theory of the ‘matrixial’ born in the 1990s, which much influenced Zegher. The matrixial is a model of living separate from the ‘phallic model’, it emphasises togetherness (as the mother with child in the womb or matrix) where the phallic model, quite differently, is based on alienation, confrontation and exclusion.¹ Drawing is a matrixial form. One of the exhibitions which Women’s Work is Never Done looks back to is Zegher’s 2010-2011 exhibition On Line. Drawing Through the Twentieth Century. She says the following about drawing and the matrixial in the exhibition text:
“... the visual language in which this matrixial model comes most to the fore is drawing, because, since childhood, drawing is in essence a medium of relation. A primal mode of image production, mark-making stages not only a separating but also a binding in the discovery of the trace. [...] Love, they say, is the inventor of drawing.” ² (Emphasis my own).
I opened this column with a note on the oldness of drawing and our hunger for the new. In this way we are back at the beginning, but in a different way. I could imagine Zegher arguing that our longing for the new is symptomatic of our time, a time of “manic production to the exclusion of all else, lost energy flow, pointless waste and greed”.³ It’s a market driven desire. And I think she’d be right in recognising that our desire to consume the new and be dazzled by it, need not be assumed noble. It is merely a fetish, afterall — and there's nothing wrong with that per se. The perhaps larger issue is that we have a hungry obsession with the new but a narrow conception of what new really means.
Catherine de Zegher, Women’s Work is Never Done, Exhibition Text, 2023, Richard Saltoun