You know those people who seek to gain historical credibility on their estate by affixing a fake gas lamp to the front of their neo-Georgian front door? Well, the good old Whitechapel Open went in for just such a makeover when, hilariously, it became the East End Academy. In the old days, the Open was a slapdash annual zestfest to which any artist living in the East End of London could contribute. Everybody sent in work, and an undistinguished panel of judges selected the least worst stuff to cram in. The Opens felt like progressive versions of the Royal Academy’s summer show, and were packed, chaotic, amateurish affairs. But since the event made its bid for respectability by changing its name, it has certainly improved. The judges are more distinguished, the pace is less frantic, the selection more selective.
The reason any of this matters is that London’s East End famously boasts the greatest concentration of artists in Europe, and probably in the world. The press release for the East End Academy goes all gas-lampy on us as it puts it like this: “This focused snapshot provides a glimpse of the immense creative output from Europe’s largest cultural quarter.” The idea that the post-industrial sprawl of Brick Lane and Old Street, the bloke selling jellied eels on the corner of Commercial Road and the rubbish piled up by the bus stop on Whitechapel High Street add up to a “cultural quarter” is as preposterous as it is pompous. But certainly the area has masses of creative energy to burn, produced from huge amounts of intoxication, youthfulness and media. And, to its credit, this year’s East End Academy has made a decent fist of sifting and mining this exceptionally unacademic urban compost.
The judges have come up with 22 artists who they reckon best represent this evident fertility. Most of the exhibits are collected within the Whitechapel Art Gallery itself, though a handful have strayed out onto the streets, where, in genetic terms, they belong. Because, take it from me, the street is the most efficacious academy this lot have ever attended.
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of anything less intrinsically academic than the coloured piece of chewing gum that Levin Haegele has stuck to the pavement outside the Whitechapel. As I understand it, the artist chewed the gum, spat it out, squashed it on the pavement with his foot and painted it in bright colours. If Seurat were a pavement artist, he might have achieved his post- impressionist spottiness by using these handy roadside methods. The piece isn’t a success, chiefly because too many people had walked over it by the time I saw it, and had removed much of the gum. You could hardly see it. And what cannot be seen cannot redecorate the streets in the polka dots of urban pointillism, as I imagine was intended.
Over at Spitalfields Market, Mattia Paganelli has arranged for unacademic games of football to be played on a pitch that is only five metres long, but otherwise mirrors the proportions of a normal football pitch. Since the games are 11-a-side, and since each team will only be able to squeeze onto their half of the pitch by holding in their beer guts, the games promise to be pent-up, kicky affairs, with much acci- dental hacking of ankles.
I’ve picked out these two external contributions taking place in the ’hood outside the East End Academy in order to evoke something of the feral atmosphere of the show inside. I don’t think it’s just a trick of the light. The art of the East End has a particular feel to it. It favours the transformation of cheap materials, it pulses to the rhythms of a hedonistic urban life, it’s lippy, it’s jokey and it seems determined to whistle while the world burns. If art could run, this stuff would scarper at top speed from the doors of any academy. If I had to force some respectability onto it by calling it something, I’d call it London Dada.
The most surprising of the points the show makes is that painting is enjoying a vigorous renaissance in Europe’s, ahem, largest cultural quarter. Peter Peri, Louise Brierley, Emi Avora and David Harrison all paint wild and lively pictures. Peri is particularly interesting, with a set of mysterious Sputnik scenes that seem to represent fascinating bits of space junk floating in the deeper cosmos. It says in the catalogue that Peri has a long-standing interest in Russian constructivist art, which would explain the cosmic abstraction of his imagery, though not its spray-can coloration. That comes, rather, from stealing cars.
I thought Louise Brierley’s pervy little paintings were also onto something. They show a glum and peculiar garden suburb in which a race of mangy man-dogs can be seen attempting a range of canine sex games. The imagery has a post-nuclear tristesse to it, as if this were what we humans had mutated into. David Harrison’s paintings are more explicitly about the same era in civilisation, which is to say the era of post-civilisation. Harrison also makes crude sculptures out of Sellotape, including an extremely resonant one of a dove with an olive branch in its mouth, which he has called Back to the Ark.
The dystopian surrealism that is the preferred style among the painters is replaced in the film and video pieces by a time-consuming lyricism that is beginning to look ever so dated. Zatorski & Zatorski give us the final hour in the life of a dying wasp, which can be seen expiring to a soundtrack of Philip Glass. If a fast-forward button had been at hand, I would have hit it, and so would anyone in their right minds. Much more inventive was the home-made animation of Ann Course & Paul Clarke, whose bleak little vignettes look as if they were scribbled on a phone pad as the artists talked to their psychiatrist.
The show peters out halfway across the top floor, and has dull things in it that could have appeared in any of the bad Whitechapel Opens of the past
20 years — notably Davies & Sherwood’s giant installation of nothing shapes searching for chaotic indecision, and finding it — but there is much here to enjoy and admire. And the return of painting that appears to be being noted is a real find.