This year Shape present their fourth Open Exhibition with what promises to be the largest attendance yet, undoubtedly helped by the fact it is held in Yinka Shonibareâ€™s Guest Projects studio, just off the thriving gallery scene of Vyner Street in Hackney. Review by Colin Hambrook.
The competition, open to disabled and non-disabled artists, put out an open call for artwork on the theme of ‘My Life’. The clear demand for narrative work presenting stories relating to daily life, gave the exhibition a cohesion that can be hard to find in themed group shows; often constrained by concepts and aphorisms.
The high standard of the artwork submitted to Shape helps, but the theme here is an invitation to compare notes. As viewer, you get drawn into understanding where the artist is coming from in telling you about their life.
There was a formidable artist character in the early 2000s television sitcom Spaced called Brian. Brian encapsulates the current stereotypes of what and who an artist is. With great affection Brian sends up all the intensity and desperation that can go into the aspiration to be an artist. There is a running gag throughout the series. According to Brian, when asked if he uses watercolours, he says “it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
Brian does anger. He does pain, fear and aggression. He celebrates everything the Turner prize-winning artist conjures in the popular imagination. (Yes, the Turner Prize broke the mould in 2015 with the award going to the group Assemble. But then the judges seemed to be self-consciously deciding to do something different by giving the award to ‘non-artists’).
My Life contains quirky, humorous and original takes on what it is to be human without all the pretentious conceptual justifications embedded in an academic historical viewpoint written and controlled by an elite class. The beautifully collated catalogue gives simple, eloquent and unashamed descriptions from each artist giving the background to the making and creating of each image. It’s a real testament to the fact that art becomes so much more without the insistent bullshit that often accompanies it.
Shape have come in for some stick on Dao in the past for inviting disabled and non-disabled artists to enter work for the Open Competition, the main argument being that there are so few opportunities for disabled artists and the barriers to make work are larger anyway.
But saying the exhibition is open to everyone to offer something that talks about ‘disability’ whatever that means to the individual artist creates more of a sense of democracy in my mind. It says impairment is an everyday part of life, that can and will affect everyone at some point in their lives. It cuts through the attitude that impairment is always a tragedy. And as such, affirms that impairment should be expected and respected on its own terms without disabling people because of it.
My Life contains several artworks that are derivative of the intensity of Figurative and Abstract Expressionism clearly illustrating how shit life can be. However what shines through is the sense of humour, beauty or what I can only describe as ‘everydayness’, running through the narratives presented.
The judges choice Bad Head Day by Kate Murdoch is an assemblage that gives a visual language for what it feels like when you just can’t get your brain into gear. The contrast between the dainty ceramic figure and the mess of wire describes with wit and precision those moments most people could relate to.
For Murdoch that is amplified by hearing loss, but the story she relates on her a-n blog of not being able to find the artwork when told it had been accepted tells a bigger story of the struggle to be organized, which is surely the bane of every artist who has ever lived.
Several of the artworks tell stories unambiguously related to impairment. Aaron McPeake’s Measurement 1985 & 2015 shows a Snellen eye chart recording the artists’ sight level on both dates respectively. The juxtaposition of images takes a hard scientific approach to visual acuity and without sentiment, interprets it poetically inviting the viewer to imagine life with the softest of focuses.
Peter Mansell’s My Health, My Home, Your Rules is a photographic montage that uses a precise composition and colour range to illustrate what it means to be defined by society as a separate class of citizen. At the top is a long image of 7 urine bags. Below that are 3 shots of bathroom, office and an abstract shot with catheter tube. And below that is a large image of the sea, seen from down-land on a day full of weather.
Prominent in the foreground is the sign ‘Disabled badge holders only’. The images in the top third of the frame hold a matter-of-fact message. The main image, however, turns the notion of being made a ‘special case’ and therefore favoured in the eyes of society onto its head, asking the viewer to think about what that actually means.
I hesitate to use the word ‘accessible’ to describe My Life. I would love to see the competition go further in addressing access, perhaps by asking the entrants to submit a creative description of their work alongside each piece.
But it is a show I would advocate to anyone who thinks “I don’t understand art”. At base, what curator Ben Fredericks has done here is present an exhibition that does what art should do, to reflect back the world around us.
As Aristotle put it “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” And to echo Yinka Shonibare’s words in the talk he gave in the Guest Projects gallery on 10 February, using materials, aesthetic and composition to evoke meaning is where art and poetry meet.