Brutal, at the Vinyl FactoryOne Stop Arts magazine
Group exhibition Brutal, curated by Lazarides & Vinyl Factory galleries.
Is this the right place? I stand outside a redundant office block on The Strand double checking the scrap of paper I scribbled the address on. A revolving door is reaching the last of its spin, someone else has just gone through it's uninviting entrance. Once inside I pass through the security gates, entirely insecure in their permanently open state and I pass through an abandoned courtyard before reaching a door open to a staircase. The descent down into the graffiti laden depths seems endless until I'm forced out, like an exudate, into a dark concrete basement seemingly miles away from the populated streets above and even further from the normal polished concrete and white walls of the gallery system.
This is Brutal, a dark and sprawling collection of works across a foreboding cellar curated by Lazarides gallery, with an atmosphere of uncertainty and edge - the curatorial text of the show states it "will explore the brutality of the times we live in and deliver a remorseful exhibition that will shock, move and surprise visitors."
My navigation into this underworld starts with unease. Glass sheets hang precariously from the ceiling strictly determine my path. The work, by Ben Woodeson, both keeps me at a distance through fear that the slightest breeze may upset the delicate balance but simultaneously puts me in the centre, my face reflected back from the suspended glass sheets. After tiptoeing my way through the silence is shattered by a gang of topless youths running and cycling into my path.
Masks obscure their faces but they communicate with action – dragging iron bars on the concrete floor, whipping chains and twisting one another's limbs in slow fights. A mutation of the gangs we see on our streets who instil fear into the middle-class mindset, it soon becomes clear that they pose no risk to us. Instead they only abuse themselves, a self-combusting contortion of aggression and energy with nowhere to go except into an orgiastic torture of one other. Then they're gone, dust from the floor thrown into the air filling the void as they race into the darkness.
The atmosphere generated by the setting is sublimely dark, but as I delve deeper into its soul, examining the corners and recesses, the work within it terrorises and disturbs me less. As I look around and see smartly dressed urbanites with designer handbags taking selfies in front of work I realise that this is a voyeuristic theme park I don't want to spend much more time in. There is huge scope in contemporary art to examine failing politics of our time and the generated social consequences of it, but I don't see a lot of comment or genuine concern around the space. What I do see is the appropriation of a style and aesthetic of urbanity, but only in a way which celebrates the grit and despair of the otherwhile doing little to address why or what can be done about it.
This may partly be because the setting is so beautifully designed, the atmosphere it generates is merciless. Some of the pieces work intuitively with the stage set around them, such as Mark Jenkins' Tape Sculptures of human figures, one of a girl curled in a despairing coil against the wall, which could be mistaken for dystopian versions of the South Bank's human-statues. But other work, such as Conor Harington's painting The Savages, a photographic moment of a punch exchanged between two historic characters, would seem much more affecting in a traditional gallery context where the brutality and shock would not be forced by the surroundings.
No work in the show suggests this more than the series on LA gang culture by Estevan Oriol, a celebrated commercial photographer who rose through the LA hip-hop scene and moved into a career of music videos and celebrity portraits. His work straddles the line between commercial and documentation, and within this fine-art context is on difficult ground as he both attempts to document a violent subculture while glamourising it. His shoots on film and as if to prove the 'rawness' of the subject he has left the rough edging of the photographic image on show. Yet, it is then printed on gloss and framed in a gallery presentation before then being placed within the further framing context of this gloomy basement. This sits uncomfortably for me, at once working so hard to portray truth and brutality, yet clearly presenting itself as a fetishistic object offering a patronising and protected gaze into another world.
On my way out I see a side room and slip inside, a single monitor loops Sebastian Horsley's iconicCrucifixion film. Showing the artist's actual crucifixion it is hard to watch but timeless and powerful. Not made with self-knowing pretentiousness it has genuine truth and authenticity which would be evident in any setting – the most brutalthing on show, not in need of staged destitution to give profundity.