Not Bad for London

London, Ontario

Not Bad for London, installation view (2011): Images courtesy Michael Gibson Gallery, London.Not Bad for London, installation view (2011): Images courtesy Michael Gibson Gallery, London.

By Sky Goodden

Not Bad for London
Michael Gibson Gallery
November 4 – 26, 2011

People don’t talk about place too much anymore. I mean, they do – but typically by way of citations to connote where they are travelling away from. Artists’ biographies are crowded with references to where they were born, where they’ve moved to, and which cities their time is split between. Then, they mention the residencies they frequent in order to leave them.

Curators sometimes still talk about place, though. Like in the recent examples of Jennifer Kraehling’s Not Bad for London, Christopher Eamon’s Rearview Mirror: New Art from Central and Eastern Europe, the recent Quebec Triennial at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain, or the approaching MASS MoCA exhibit, Oh, Canada! (what we can all admit is an embarrassing moniker but a star-studded affair). These curators put a bunch of people from the same place in the same room, and they try to understand if it means something. Does regionalism still exist? Do artists still relate to where they are? To one another? Is it more exciting when they don’t?

Not Bad for London, installation view (2011)Not Bad for London, installation view (2011)The framework has its detractors. Critics opine that the idea of “place” is dated – that we’re transnational, multi-ethnic, free-falling; that we’re a nationless state. But what the former has going for it are two things: one, that place still exists. We can’t be sure about that other thing – that in between thing – but we can be pretty sure that we’re somewhere when we see these things. The second thing is that when it works, when an exhibition about place creates a feeling that you are somewhere, and you feel, for a moment, that you understand that other place – well, it’s amazing. When it works, art is at its best. From the handprints of Chauvet-Pont-D’arc to Christo’s bannered Central Park, good work about place posits that something somewhere is common to us all.

Jennifer Kraehling, Associate Director of the Michael Gibson Gallery, has recently posited – albeit under the proto-Canadian self-deprecating title Not Bad for London – a rejoinder to the albatross of place: regionalism. Kraehling’s fall exhibition featured young London-based artists Marc Bell, James Kirkpatrick, Amy Lockhart, Jason McLean, Jamie Q, Peter Thompson and Billy Bert Young, and focused on a generation that has arguably inherited a complicated iconicity. The group bands together – either in resistance to or in accordance with its estate – and demonstrates a body of work that feels both playful and considered.

Importantly, the exhibition title takes its root in a McLean drawing where a “lone tree sits next to a forked river called the Thames”; “the tree has big googly eyes and a flowing head of hair. But most importantly, the tree has roots.” Indeed, the roots are visible. Threaded through the show’s figuration, ephemera, and naïve sculpture are the region’s formative predecessors. Greg Curnoe’s mid-60s cut-outs are discernable in Kirkpatrick’s collages; Murray Favro’s material duplicity is played-out in Kirkpatrick and McLean’s sculpture; Clark McDougall’s cloisonné neons are underwritten in Jamie Q’s involuted drawings. But in the mix, too, are chords of self-query and denial. McLean’s constructions, for instance, cite London locales, but also float uncomfortably above them, traced with scrawling texts pertinent to any place, to that no-place. “I found myself out of body at the DQ. I found myself at the DQ,” says one, an uncertain line linking it to the Wortley Roadhouse (a local citation of familiarity, if not significance). Bell’s cartoons suggest that site is both internal and mechanized.

Indeed, the show amounts to a seemingly playful and figurative improvisation on ground well-laid, but its finer notes suggest unrest. What is this place to us now? How do we move forward?  

Kraehling’s exhibition succeeds in the very questions it asks, if not fully in its provisions. A place is more than its citations, its aesthetic canon; it’s more than its agitation. But where we pick up, and how – in a moment such as this one – we acknowledge the ground on which we stand, are the questions worth examining. Of  this much I am sure: we’ll be somewhere when we do.

Sky GooddenSky Goodden is a Toronto-based art writer and publisher. She is the editor of Artinfo Canada, and co-editor of the contemporary culture publication ONE HOUR EMPIRE. She regularly writes for Canadian Art, C Magazine and Magenta, among others. She is currently co-editing a book on artist residencies titled A Floating Practice: Artist Residencies in Contemporary Art.