Art institutions in Britain’s capital city like to jockey for the position of being the epicentre of creativity in London. It seems every exhibition boasts the freshest, newest, most relevant talent to ever show on the London art scene. It’s no surprise then that Whitechapel Gallery suggests their open-submission exhibition called The London Open is a barometer for the best emerging artistic trends.
Long before Tate Modern arrived, Whitechapel Gallery in East London has been leading the latest and greatest of emerging artists into the London art scene. They have been successful in identifying new talent over the decades, as world-renown artists such as Rachel Whiteread, Lucian Freud, Greyson Perry and Mark Wallinger have all premiered their works at this institution.
The 2012 edition of the triennial event The London Open pulls from all over the city to showcase the most up-to-date emerging trends and talent in the capital. For many, this is the first exposure to an institutional viewing of their work. Others, like Roy Voss, come from relatively well-known gallery representation.
Wherever their origins or previous ties, this year’s selection of artists comes from a pool of nearly 2,000 submissions from an open process available to all those 26 years and older living and practicing in London. With an application fee of just £25 and a 500-word artist statement, it seems an easy enough task, and rather appealing method of getting your work on display to today’s failed economy-affected artist trying to make it in the big (money) art world.
The works displayed in the gallery are the result of a curatorial process whereby curators, collectors, writers and artists come together to choose the best of the bunch. There is a political or social slant to many of the works, some of which is unavoidably apparent, others of which give an “oblique reference” to the “global financial and political crisis” says Whitechapel curator Kirsty Ogg. Alongside Ogg, art world figures the likes of Art Monthly editor Patricia Bickers, artist Rodney Graham, collector Jack Kirkland, and curator Marta Kuzma make up the selection committee.
In the gallery, there is also the odd folk-art sort of feel to the art, where some artists have used a DIY approach, and others are embody kitsch or outsider art. After having seen so many degree shows recently where the works pile on top of each other and span multiple floors and buildings, it is a relief to witness a curatorial hand in exhibiting emerging talent rather than art chucked into a corner, or placed in the hallway next to the elevators.
Yet, not all who come to see the Whitechapel exhibition would agree. Some in fact consider the exhibition “over-curated”, “uptight”, and “flavourless” - or at least Guardian reviewer Jonathan Jones does in his online blog entry titled “Why has The London Open got its eyes wide shut to the capital's creatives?” (Posted Wednesday, 4 July 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2012/jul/04/london-open-art-whitechapel-gallery?newsfeed=true).
In his entry, Jones attacks the selection committee for foregrounding artists who conveniently engage our current global political or social issues. It seems that Jones may not understand that if the chosen best work happens to be politically slanted, wouldn’t that make it an emerging trend? With a history of finding emerging talent and being the first to exhibit their work, why shouldn’t the Whitechapel Gallery take their curatorial decisions seriously, and create a cohesive show out of a submission pile? Do the artists not deserve a placement amidst their emerging peers where their works can dialogue? Surely Jones knows a hodgepodge of work thrown into a gallery doesn’t do much to enhance the art, promote the gallery, or communicate the overall message - which is after all the purpose - of an exhibition.
What’s more, you can almost hear him scoff at the lack of talent he sees around the gallery, claiming there must be a “creative recession” in the art capital of Europe. Wanting to witness the birth of the new Andy Warhol at a single glance, Jones perhaps has forgotten that many great artists are scorned or unappreciated before they become famous. Shall we have some patience, trusting that since Whitechapel didn’t fail to identify key artists before, why should we doubt them now?
Taking this fairly elitist stance of Is this the best you’ve got?, Jones further criticises the artists for not being political enough, claiming none in the exhibition rivals the “blind rage” of Thomas Hirshhorn. He asserts these artists’ work isn’t politically relevant, and even goes as far to remark their art doesn’t have anything of value to say. It’s clear the nuanced forms of politically engaged artistic expression are lost on him (see paragraphs 5-8). That’s okay, if he needs to be shocked and awed by a provocative work à la Hirshhorn to understand its message, then rest assured there are plenty of in-your-face artworks to oblige.
On one hand, I can appreciate his albeit idealistic call for “an open exhibition [being] an unpredictable free-for-all, cramming as many artists as possible into the space, of all styles and manners and attitudes. Let the visitors choose what they like.” Wouldn’t that be nice? A sort of craft fair in the gallery setting to stir things up a bit, and the viewer being the authoritative voice of value judgments. I would suggest then, if that is one’s preference, to walk further down to Brick Lane and visit the Sunday Up Market rather than wasting your time in an art gallery.
But before we spin off any further on these series of rebuttals, why don’t we turn to the art and let it speak for itself - is there indeed anything worthwhile in this exhibition?
Of course there is. There is creativity abound in this gallery, you just have to be open to seeing it. If you’re willing, you might find humorous irony as well as political corruption in Martin John Callanan’s “Letters 2004-2006: Confirmation that you still exist; I respect your authority; When will it end” (2007). Or, you may be persuaded by the pessimistic “Business as Usual” perspective expressed by Arnaud Desjardin's "The Everyday Press” (2007). Or perhaps you can relate to the social unrest and housing crisis as seen in Shaun Doyle and Mally Mallinson’s boarded-up toy house “Wendy Squat II” (2004). Artists working in old and new media, challenging the existing conditions of society, calling attention to the state of global politics - their political statements are absolutely relevant as active engagements with the now and expressing their individual views. Further, their artistic statements alone deserve our consideration.
Despite the elitist nay-sayers, Whitechapel Gallery proves with The London Open it is still a powerhouse of its own, and has been long before Tate and the West End monies and politics came into play in the art world. Yet, I’m curious, what do you think? Words Sharon Strom ©ArtLyst 2012
Exhibition runs from 4 July-14 September 2012.