The British Art Show

June 2011

Publication: The Times

The British Art Show is an unwieldy creature – spread across three Glasgow venues the quinquennial exhibition, which aims to provide a snapshot of contemporary art in Britain, consists of the work of 39 artists working in a variety of media including film, sound, painting, drawing and installation. It needs a good deal of dedication and time to absorb what’s on offer. On the whole it’s energy largely wasted.


The majority of the artists are based in London – although many are not British.  One curator, Tom Morton, is also based in the metropolis, while the second, Lisa Le Feuvre, worked there until last year.  A smaller number live in Glasgow while none appear either to come from or to be based in Wales or Northern Ireland. Already this selection appears to be weighted in one direction – urbanised and metropolitan. Exceptionally , George Shaw, who was born on Coventry now lives in Devon; but his work, paradoxically, refers to the bleak urban decay of his early years in the English Midlands.


Perhaps the issue of an artist’s domicile is unimportant as Shaw’s work would seem to demonstrate? Certainly, looking at all of these works in totality, their concerns seem universal and if the term can be applied to art, stateless.  Many however are unequivocally urban, such as Sparticus Chetwynd’s ‘The Folding House’, Matthew Darbyshire’s ‘An Exhibition for Modern Living’ or the installation by artist duo Cullinan Richards whose use of cheap everyday materials such as tape, polythene and light tubes recalls an earlier era of ‘anti-art’ and Arte Povera.


There is skilful craft here and when it comes together with well constructed ideas such as Steven Claydon’s Trom Bell (cast at Whitechapel  Bell Foundry) or Charles Avery’s powerful drawings depicting a alternative dystopian reality, the effects can be moving rather than empty.




Of all the artists here, one in particular appears uncomfortably incongruous for Alasdair Gray is from an older generation of artists and he works in a readily identifiable graphic style. Recognising this the curators have displayed his work (both at MoMA and CCA) adjacent to that of Mick Peter. Like Gray, the Glasgow-based German draws and paints but his work is tangential, tentative and wholly based on a set of ideas such as those in ‘Two Clerks’ which derives from one of Flaubert’s novels.


The show is subtitled “In the Days of the Comet’ which is taken from a 1906 novel by  H. G. Wells – the metaphor is apt in that BAS reappears at regular intervals and illuminates, albeit very dimly, the night sky of contemporary art.  In the clear light of day, of course, most comets are invisible.