Counter Acts: Incomplete Histories 1984 – present

As the UK’s contemporary art scene gears up for the announcement of this year’s prestigious Turner Prize winner, University of the Arts London (UAL) has mounted a fascinating exhibition featuring the work of alumni, both teachers and students, who have either won or been nominated for the prize since its inception in 1984.

There’s plenty on show since half of all Turner Prize winners have studied at one of the university’s six colleges – Camberwell College of Art, Central Saint Martin’s, Chelsea College of Arts, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion and Wimbledon College of Art. These colleges themselves often subsumed smaller ones. 

Each in their own distinctive way has pushed the boundaries of both how art is made and how it’s taught. Hence the exhibition’s title’s play on words, Counter Acts. It was curated by former alumnus and now Curator of International Art at Tate Modern, Osei Bonsu. He explained to me the importance of the artists on show. “They contributed to a social history of British art by asking questions about gender politics, identity, representation, how they reflected on the idea of what art in Britain could look like or could be.”

In many ways the exhibition captures the zeitgeist of its times. The late Helen Chadwick’s photo satirising the stereotypical view of women from her In the Oven series pictured at the top, exemplifies this. It was taken from a performance she and three other women gave at the Chelsea School of Art back in 1977.

Keith Moon, A Retrospective, 1995

There’s humour too in an early series by Jeremy Deller which he made while he was a student at The London College of Printing in 1995. It comprises fake exhibition posters of shows that he wishes had been put on. Besides Keith Moon, there are those featuring the Independent Group (blank), the paintings of John Squire, of David Bowie, the poetry of Shaun Ryder and the life in words of Morrissey. It’s a gentle attack on art compartmentalism and the random associations evident here became part of how he was to articulate his practice later on.

Central Saint Martins has prided itself on its avant-garde tradition in sculpture. Gilbert and George, for example, challenged the traditional object-based view of sculpture by becoming objects themselves through their Singing Sculptures. They were expected to win the very first Turner Prize but were beaten to it by the abstract expressionist painter Malcolm Morley whose first artistic efforts came during a short stretch in prison for petty theft. There are exhibits here by Richard Deacon who also made performance-based work and Bill Woodrow who’d make sculptures from discarded household appliances.

Super Ego II, Antony Gormley, 1987

There’s a simple but charming work by Antony Gormley, above, consisting of two spots of linseed oil on paper which he’s reconfigured as two heads. It could be a preparatory sketch for a sculpture except that he never made it. As the title, Super Ego II suggests, it’s concerned with duality – the human body and the self – one of a series he made of psychoanalytical pencil drawings. Gormley was parting with his contemporaries by concentrating on the human body rather than on abstract sculpture that was predominant at the time.

Mark Wallinger, a Turner Prize winner in 2007, had produced a series of photographic self-portraits in 1988 that he defaced to assume the identity of different racial or ethnic groups. This was in response to having been beaten up by members of the right-wing British National Party. It was a well-meaning act of solidarity with ethnically marginalised groups then, but the portraits of a white man adopting stereotypical images of ethnic groups is not viewed as sympathetically today.

During the 1980s, black British artists began asserting themselves, de-colonising the arts and challenging stereotypes about their race, history and identity. There are important works here by Ingrid Pollard reflecting on the kind of verbal assaults she has endured as a gay, black woman in Britain. 

Natura Morta (medical cabinet, Mona Hartoum, 2012

Violence of a more general nature – war and conflict – is the subject of Mona Hatoum’s elegantly critical sculpture of a medical cabinet in which glass baubles, the only festive note here, are in the form of beautiful grenades.

Lovers of painting will be disappointed by this exhibition. The Turner Prize has often been criticised for its preference for conceptual art over painting, particularly figurative. One of the few paintings on show is a lovely self-portrait by Chris Ofili in which he is surrounded by a series of eyes. It’s one of the last he did while a student at Chelsea.    

Dangerous Fragility, Cathy de Monchaux, 1994

Cathy de Monchaux made the wall-mounted corset of Dangerous Fragility, above, out of leather, brass, ribbons and thread. Once more, it’s a psychoanalytically-inspired piece from 1994 about inner and outer beauty, disgust, desire and repulsion. It’s a great example of how art can express so many concepts in one simple form. 

I’ve mentioned a few of the highlights of a large exhibition set in Central Saint Martin’s Lethaby Gallery founded in 1896. The other artists not mentioned but participating are Lubaina Himid, Laure Prouvost, Isaac Julien, Gillian Wearing, James Richards, Goshka Macuga, Yinka Shonibare, Vong Phaophanit, Madelynn Mae Green, Michael Taiwo, Alix Marie, Beatriz Olabarrieta, Penny Goring, Nicola Tyson, Anne Tallentire and John Seth.

Lovers, Jimmy Merris, 2019

To bring the exhibition up to date, some works by recent graduates of ULA have been included. Lovers, above, by young painter and video artist Jimmy Merris is a somewhat grotesque but interesting take on human relationships, referencing the kind of destructive and repressive aspects that can exist beneath the surface. The tongues are tangled, the limbs are like tentacles, the genders seem liquid. It’s a mixed media piece using Fimo, Polyfilla and synthetic hair. It’s an example of inter-generational dialogue, one of the aims of the exhibition. Curator Osei Bonsu hopes it will inspire the young. “We’re reminding artists that they have a responsibility to be bold and to be radical and to think about the future.”

Counter Acts: Incomplete Histories, 1984 – Present is showing at the Lethaby Gallery, Central Saint Martins, 1 Granary Square, Kings Cross, London N1C 4AA until 22 January 2020. The gallery is closed between 21 December 2019 – 7 January 2020.

All images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.  

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