What to make of Maureen Paley's "...Hounded by External Events..." exhibition? It certainly comes with a haughty promise. One that's not exactly matched by its location on a small, run-down trading estate just off the Cambridge Heath Road. You press a buzzer on an unpromising doorway and are let in to a series of standard white painted rooms that are filled with seemingly disparate artworks intermittently broken up with vaguely political slogans painted directly on the walls.
The title of the exhibition is taken from a passage in World Within World. The 1951 autobiography of the English poet and critic Stephen Spender (that's Humphrey Spender's 1934 bromide print of Spender below). In a rather obvious, though completely pertinent, echo of the times we're living in Spender coined the term 'hounded by external events' to reflect his unease about the portentous domestic and international situation he found himself living in in the early 1930s.
The premise of this exhibition (curated by the novelist and cultural commentator Michael Bracewell) is that each generation soon enough rediscovers that sense of unease. The press release speaks of of how 'the rise of fundamentalism' has been accompanied by 'a politics of paranoia'. How 'surveillance, offence taken and demands for atonement abound'. That seems to be a given to anyone but the most deluded but how the artworks that populate this show speak to or about that is not so clear.
We are told that Oscar Wilde decreed that it is not the critic's task to explain the mysteries of art but to deepen them further. Ideas I'd have understood, found admirable even, until fairly recently. But my current thinking is that, perhaps, the rise of fundamentalism needs to be attacked more directly. Through protest, education, and rigorous opposition mostly. Art can have a place but does Kaye Donachie's Did you ever think of me (2016) say anything to you? If so let me know because I can't see anything more than a reasonably pleasant portrait painting.
Serban Savu's Departure (2014) is an even nicer painting. It looks a bit cold, a bit lonely, almost Hopperesque, but why is it paired with the below quote from Samuel Hynes' The Auden Generation:Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (1976):-
"....and by claiming the right to choose their own ancestors, they were denying the ancestors the past that had provided, and, in a sense, creating their own history..."
John Kelsey's Dans la rue series from 2016 (above) and Lucy McKenzie's Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, and Donald MacLean (2011, below) aren't quite so thrilling to look at. I'm not sure what the Kelsey is about at all and I wonder if the inclusion of members of the Cambridge spy ring who passed state secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II is supposed to make comment on Russian interference in the American election. If so some clarity would've been nice. It's fine to deepen the mysteries of art further but should the same apply to politics?
There's no doubting Gareth Jones' David Bowie Memorial Carpet (1994) is cute and as it's got Bowie in it I obviously liked it because I like almost everything he's in. It's sat in front of the below quote from Walter Kaufmann's Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1956) which at least sounds like the sort of thing David would've enjoyed:-
"The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body and beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic and remote from life - that is the heart of existentialism'.
Well, I can enjoy an existentialist crisis waiting for a bus so I don't really need to visit a gallery to be reminded of that. Although galleries tend to be warmer than bus stops and have nicer people in them too. There's a series of untitled Lithuanian prints from Andrew Miksys taken between 2003 and 2010 and another quote. This time from the gloomy 19c Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, writing pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus, in 1846's Concluding Unscientific Postscript:-
"...out of love for mankind, and out of despair at my embarrassing situation, seeing that I had accomplished nothing and unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, and moved by a genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere..."
He doesn't sound like the sort of guy you want to go to a party with. But, for the first time in the show, his morose words matched with Serban Savu's rather excellent oil paintings. The Card Players (2011) is set on a grey boring day with a group of men idling away their day in the park. It seems like they've no work and very little money. It seems like this day is much like every other in their lives. You can imagine them, hands in pockets, shuffling their feet to keep warm. A very real moment in a very unreal exhibition.
Small Talk after Lunch (2012), again by Savu, is just as good. Very similar in fact. The younger men in this painting waste an afternoon, presumably a sunnier one, in the garden of a tower block as a white van passes by. We don't know where it's been and we don't know where it's going. It's kind of how I felt passing through this gallery. There was some good art, some not so good art, some pretentious quotes, some thought provoking questions but what there was most was a concept so high I couldn't get over it. The mysteries of art have, indeed, been deepened. If that's a good or bad thing you'll just have to decide yourself.