Banksy. Not much of a name, is it? Do you remember that masked wrestler in the 1960s, who called himself Kendo Nagasaki, and whose contests consisted of other wrestlers trying to yank off his mask and reveal his true identity? Well, Banksy has selected a similar strategy for getting noticed — but he has picked a lousier name. Banksy is suburban and rather chummy. It’s unserious. We know from the off that the so-called art vandal is a friend from the dressing room, a cricketing pal, part of the gang.
Knowing this makes it easier to step into his new exhibition: a room full of live rats. Before we do that, however, let’s briefly remember how Banksy managed to stick his finger on the pulse. The extraordinary thing about him is that he is a creation of the internet. Long before Channel 4 News began noticing him, www.banksy.co.uk was art’s happening website. Banksy didn’t have a gallery, but he did have a link on which he would advertise his treasure hunts. You were told to turn up somewhere, at such-and-such a time, and a trail would send you on a merry goose chase until, finally, you walked out in front of a Banksy artwork.
The early pieces were crude examples of graffiti. You can check them out on the website. They’re noisy but uninteresting. The next series of scams brought him more directly into the art world’s eye line. A series of revelations on his website recorded how the Robin Hood of art had managed to get his work into some of the world’s most prestigious museums without the museums realising. At the British Museum, he added one of his own primitive rock drawings to the world-famous rock-drawing collection. Then he hung a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Louvre; the Museum of Modern Art.
With his graffiti art and his covert museum happenings, Banksy had found a new way of getting into the art world, not through the front door of the gallery system — which would certainly have slammed shut on him — but through a much bigger door, round the back: the internet. Clearly, he was on to something.
Whether he is a good artist is another question, and one that I set off for his rat show keen to answer. The information on his website was that a selection of “remixed masterpieces, vandalism and vermin” was being presented by Banksy at 100 Westbourne Grove, W2, for 12 days. This address turned out to be a shop positioned between a fashionable hairdresser and an elegant restaurant: just the spot to cause maximum annoyance with rats.
The show consists, traditionally enough, of a selection of Banksy’s paintings and sculptures, surrounded, untraditionally, by 140 live rats that run around the floor, invade the artworks, make you feel nervous, keep you on your toes and should be seen, I suggest, as Banksy’s alter egos. Visually, the most striking exhibit is Stan, the skeleton of a museum attendant, dressed in the usual paramilitary museum gear, that’s slumped by a wall, and which the rats seem particularly keen to explore. When I was there, a wriggling nest of them had settled into his crotch and nodded off.
What we actually have here is a happening. By shocking himself into our consciousness with rats, Banksy is doing what so many surrealists and situationists have done before him. After a while, I found that the rats ceased to bother me, though I did wish I hadn’t chosen today, of all days, to wear sandals. Their job is to take you somewhere else and claim your attention, a task they perform impeccably.
So, the scene has been set, the evocation evoked. We’re in a dilapidated museum overrun by rats that have eaten the attendant and set a melodramatic post-Holocaust mood that continues into the paintings. Many of them are landscapes in a vaguely Constable-ish manner, doctored to capture the spirit of modern Britain as Banksy sees it. In front of a lovely stretch of river, the police have put up one of their bright yellow signs appealing for witnesses to a murder. Another landscape has surveillance cameras by a country lane. A third shows a burnt-out car covered in obscene graffiti.
Thus, Banksy the supposed hooligan turns out to be an old-fashioned moralist, moaning about the ruination of Britain’s ancient textures as blimpishly as John Ruskin used to do when he complained about the railways. In their exceedingly unsubtle way, the Banksy rants are rather effective. The borrowings from other artists give them instant familiarity. One of Monet’s famous water-lily ponds has had supermarket trolleys dumped in it. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers have wilted and fallen off their stems. The beach on which Jack Vettriano’s famous Singing Butler and friends are dancing has toxic waste washed up on it. A version of the famous Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper, features the late-night Manhattan melancholics huddled around their coffee as usual — but a British yob in Union Jack underpants has turned up on the street outside and chucked a brick through the window. It’s funny. And it’s sad. Both those qualities are surprising. I expected angry agitprop from Banksy, and cheek, but I did not expect a tear to be shed at the coarsening of Britain.
So, it’s a good show. The bad guy turns out to be a good guy. What, then, of the official good guy, Ged Quinn, whom people have been whispering about for months, who is wowing them at Frieze this weekend, and who has his work on show at the perennially excellent Wilkinson Gallery, in Bethnal Green? Quinn also paints traditional landscapes — huge ones, the size of a wall — and he, too, is in the business of quoting from others. His landscapes are usually “borrowed” from that ubiquitous French 17th-century country-house presence, Claude Lorrain. “Appropriation”, as the modern-art mags like to call it, has been lots of artists’ favourite strategy for a while. We live in a cut-and-paste world, and our artists are doing it, like everyone else. It’s a way of exploiting other people’s creativity to say what you mean. In music, it’s called sampling: someone else writes the catchy tune, you write a new story line.
Quinn’s work awes you briefly on the most basic of levels: with its sense of skill. By quoting Claude so obviously, he bluffs his way through the door of old-masterly values. A closer examination reveals some clunky and vague paintwork, but Claude himself was a churner-out of mass effects, and Quinn, in quoting him, is after an instant impression.
What counts in these pictures is what Quinn has added to the scenes to make them his, and, indeed, to make them contemporary. The scruffy home-made tent bed at the centre of the most calming of the fake Claude landscapes turns out to be a creepy description of the lair in which an American serial murderer — the Zodiac Killer — used to live. Jeffrey Dahmer’s living room pops up in another stretch of twilit Italy; Hitler’s summer castle in a Friedrich forest.
These are fascinating paintings that repay lots of looking. The inveigling of modern problematics into old-master moods is skilfully done. Quinn deserves to be whispered about. But of the two, I preferred Banksy. Quinn is a cool strategist. Banksy is a noisy life force.