Which is a pity as it's a rather fantastic gallery and the Hynek Martinec and Justin Mortimer shows I'd seen there, and written about, earlier this year had both been little treasures. I'd kidded myself if I wrote an equally glowing review of Transient Space then I'd finally break through and be noticed by somebody in the art world!
Alas, the show, for the most part, just didn't move me in the same way. There was some good stuff but there wasn't all that much of it. I'd been tempted in, not just by the gallery's track record but, by the premise of the show. That of the flaneur, the man (or woman) of leisure who strolls the city streets almost at random, exploring and making links. As a keen walker, both in city and country, and an art enthusiast too, I'd hoped it would combine these interests and speak to me both directly and passionately.
Nathan Coley - Noora (2015)
Tim Head - Transient Space 1 (1982)
In 1863's The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire called upon artists to capture the fleeting nature of modern life by creating 'transient' images. The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin expounded on Baudelaire's idea and came up with the concept of the flaneur. There was a decadence, and a cool detachment, to the flaneur but also, conversely, an earthiness and a willingness to partake in the day to day of city life, all the time keeping one's individuality - a must when confronted with the vast impersonality of modern city life.
Parafin are showing the works of six contemporary artists who've all approached urban space and how we relate to it, move around inside it, and how it affects us, from their own personal angles. The Scottish artist Nathan Coley has based his architectural models on photographs of housing blocks that have been partially destroyed by terrorism, war, or UN sanctioned military action. Each model is mounted as if like a placard, as if it could be carried at a demonstration. The destroyed city coming back to haunt itself.
The oldest works in the show, by nearly two whole decades, are those of Tim Head. In the early eighties Head would take long walks through London at night taking photographs of anonymous, liminal spaces like empty corridors, lobbies, the foyers of hotels, and underground car parks. He's mirrored them horizontally to give them a kind of sci-fi effect and, one assumes, make us look again at environments we take so easily for granted as we pass through them. Head studied at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne alongside Bryan Ferry and, as with Ferry's Roxy Music, there's something in Head's work that makes the mundane spectacular. I'd go so far as to say as he'd have probably been even better off if he'd not gone for the sci-fi effect. These spaces, when devoid of human life, can be eerie and other worldly enough anyway.
Abigail Reynolds - St Paul's 1975/1926 (2013)
Abigail Reynolds is a collagist and film maker based in Cornwall. Her series The Universal Now uses cut and paste techniques to juxtapose images of buildings from old books to show how they looked, and how they've changed, during five, twenty, or fifty year time periods. She's specialised in London landmarks like Cleopatra's Needle, Battersea Power Station, Buckingham Palace, the Albert Hall, St. Paul's, and Trafalgar Square. It's a simple trick but like many simple tricks it's a neat one.
Nathan Coley - Ruth (2015)
Nathan Coley - Rima (2015)
Mike Ballard - No Omega (2017)
Mike Ballard, in his pleasant paintings (and in his far more impressive sculptural work), aims to 'bring our attention to the visual noise that influences a fundamental experience of the everyday urban environment'. Riffing on the gap between public and private spaces, and influenced by Duchamp's idea of the readymade, Ballard uses building site hoardings, spray paint, and toner to bring something of the outside of the city into the confines of the gallery.
Melanie Manchot's three part film Tracer takes an even more direct route. I love her films when there's not much happening but when the parcour runners appear and start jumping all over everything I'm left cold. I get the point that they're upgrading the flaneur's passive engagement with the city into something more active and more now but it doesn't half look like showing off for the sake of it. Slow down and take stuff in from time to time, why don't you?
Melanie Manchot - Tracer (2013)
Mike Ballard - Sentry (2016)
Mike Ballard - Superstrasse (2016)
Keith Coventry - Ontological Painting (1999)
Keith Coventry is probably the most well known artist in the show and, on first sight, it's hard to work out what he's doing here. This is just abstract painting isn't it, and not particularly inspiring abstract painting? There's only one work by him so it's hard to get a feel for what he's trying to do simply by looking. The free A4 leaflet you can grab at the door helps here (but that does leave you wondering that if the art needs to be explained is it, perhaps, failing in its role as art - and if that's the case then why bother writing so many bloody blogs about it?).
His Ontological Paintings are inspired by the orientation maps you see at the entrances to housing estates, often with You Are Here arrows written on them, but he's removed any useful geographical information and moved all the blocks around to suggest confusion and alienation. While that certainly makes it pertinent to a show about us small humans and how life in the large city affects us, it doesn't mean it either offers us any particularly filling food for thought or is worth pondering for any great amount of time.
I like to think Charles Baudelaire, and even more so Walter Benjamin, would have popped in to this show as they chanced upon it, enjoyed it, and continued walking off into the city unsure of where they'd end but certain that, at some point, they'd see, or encounter, something that would make some kind of sense of what they'd seen here. Everything's about making connections and links. This show was a link but what, one day, it'll be linked to is still yet to be ascertained. That's the joy, the wonderful and frightening joy, of life in the city. At least for me.
Mike Ballard - Fly Wonder (2017)
Tim Head - Terminal Space 3 (Vanishing Point) (1982)
Tim Head - Transient Space 3 (1982)
Abigail Reynolds - Buckingham Palace 1977/1982 (2010)
Melanie Manchot - Tracer (2013)