Put an artist as esteemed as Jane McAdam Freud into a room full of junk and tell her to make what she can of it is like letting a hungry kid loose in a sweet shop.
This is what occurred in 2015 at Harrow School, that 400-year-old crusty but venerated private school, alma mater to Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Byron, Cecil Beaton and a large chunk of Britain’s establishment.
The school commissioned McAdam Freud to make use of redundant equipment left behind in the original sculpture department. It was otherwise going to be chucked out before the department moved to new premises. The fruits of the resultant two-year residency are currently showing at London’s Gazelli Art House.
Everyday objects such as pitchforks, hockey sticks, easels, school desks, chairs and so on, what Robert Rauschenberg simply and memorably called “stuff”, have been reframed and re-evaluated into reinvented works of art.
Each work has some kind of signifier, a term straight out of the lexicon of McAdam Freud’s great grandfather, Sigmund Freud whose theories on the subconscious triggered the modern art movement. Her pieces reflect ideas of her imagination rather than finished, presentable objects.
So, a set of drawers is emblazoned with the word DRAW, a play on words that creates an image to represent an underlying concept. Freud’s “thing theory” saw a separation between the word that depicted an image (conscious) and the emotion it triggers (subconscious).
A set of copper grills such as might be found on a cooker are put together with the metalwork found on the back of a fridge denoting the extremes of hot and cold. “It’s what lies in between that is complicated”, she explains.
A saucepan hangs from a stick in a vulnerable kind of way. Within the “non-stick” is carved a portrait. Here we have a visual feast cooked up with the sitter, viewer and commissioner all served up as art.
A series of rusty metal rings are interlocked in an installation she calls After Tatlin. It alludes to the Russian architect Vladamir Tatlin’s grand design of a massive tower that never got built. The image remains of something that never existed.
Various pieces of a chair are assembled in a way which asks when do objects end and when does art begin. Two pots of black paint within some metal dustbins resemble dilated pupils, (another play on words) redolent with sexuality.
An old desk that she has mounted on metal springs is slightly skew-whiff thanks to a broken hinge. She has carved the word “open” on it as a means of expressing how “open” can have many different meanings. What could be inside the desk is left to the viewer’s imagination.
Within all this is McAdam Freud’s ambivalence towards authority. Not only was she, a woman, in an all boys traditional school steeped in rules and formality and surrounded by a macho ethos, but she also questions the authority given to forms of art, particularly painting and sculpture. For example, one exhibit has accoutrements of painting – brushes, paint etc, – boxed inside a frame that hangs from the wall at an angle. Where is the boundary?
Similarly, Painting in Time has a painting, mounted on an easel, that has gone rusty, both literally and metaphorically.
By saving these remnants of an old studio and giving them a new lease of life, Jane McAdam Freud says she is “giving something back to the ethos of the former culture of the department while managing unexplained feelings of loss.” This is exemplified by an old, battered and tarnished tuba on which the word BRASS has been polished on to it, bringing it back to life, albeit a very different one.
The exhibition raises interesting questions surrounding art and about how often nondescript items can be given a new context and a resultant new lease of life. It’s hard, though, to think who might find them of aesthetic enough value to want to buy them.
The exhibition runs at the Gazelli Art House, 39 Dover Street, London W1S 4NN until 20 January 2018. The images are used with the permission of the artist and gallery.