7th December 2007 — 10th February 2008
I walked into this temptingly titled exhibition rather grumpily, having
circled the surrounding streets for ages in search of a parking space.
In this frame of mind I initially saw little to set it apart from a
number of provincial collections I've half-heartedly wandered around on
rainy afternoons: eclectic groups of artefacts, together by
happenstance, like a jumbled accumulations of ornaments on an
octogenarian's mantelpiece. Some of the familiar work shone out
immediately. A Jenny Holzer sign brightened me for a moment, but I was
trying to discern Steven Claydon's hand in the affair and, besides his
bronze one with a section of armature revealed partway down a finger,
was drawing a blank.
He must like hands. There's one on a plinth, also disembodied, once belonging to a mannequin, faded and cracked with age. I expected it to be from the days of the surrealists, but was surprised to learn that it was dated 1976. And heads. A vitrine contains a Giacometti, an Epstein. Nearby, upon a hessian-lined table that extends diagonally across the main room, a goggled Frink. There are Claydon bonces. One, white, bearded, resembling a Viking Hemingway with white earflaps, crowned with a dark pudding-bowl headpiece. 'Spaka Spou (deposed deity)' says the catalogue. Sigmund Freud, whose house I'd driven past three times earlier, sprung to mind. I was thinking of his study, heaving with archaeological curios.
His collection includes deities and mythical creatures from antiquity that he used as metaphors for psychoanalysis. He tended to gesture towards particular ones to illustrate remarks he made to his patients. Freud was evidently a compulsive collector. Like the work in this exhibition, his pieces had not been selected or arranged according to chronology or place of origin. Instead they served as points of departure. Freud's objets emanated from scattered cultures, and time-wise, span millennia. Claydon's selections, at least in terms of their actual creation, are confined to the 20th and 21st century western art canon. Mournful drones and discordant caterwauling issue from a corner of the room. A video by Jim Shaw depicts bespangled figures with giant Mr Potatohead ears, noses and miscellaneous body parts performing some kind of delirious Shriner ceremony within a curved wooden wall of death. Outside the viewing area is displayed one of the props: Latex rubber testicle bagpipes. A blanched gargoyle by Thomas Houseago crouches in the corner below Picabia's 'Femme a l'Idole' featuring a stocking-clad woman standing with her knee in the crotch of a fantastical ebony sculpture. The warm tobacco glow of this image is one of the few smudges of colour Claydon has allowed in this room, the hues complementing those of Burra's 'Design for a Drop Curtain' on the far wall showing grotesque masked entertainers and hooded cloaked women throwing shapes in a brutist city square receding to an exaggerated vanishing point. Throughout the exhibition he has 'used' colour sparingly. He has considered the effect of the pieces in each room like an interior decorator, prioritising tone over colour, and, in the case of a wall of unphotographable off-white paintings by Keith Coventry, dispensed with tone altogether. A smallish dun-coloured Lynn Chadwick sculpture leans against the wall below them. One exception, a lurid pink haemorrhoid cushion of aluminium by Franz West in the adjoining room sits below a video by Mark Leckey entitled 'The March of the Big White Barbarians.' To a rousing chant, a slideshow of corporate sculptures, the kind that are so ubiquitous in cities, standing stock still as only sculptures can, where they have been sited, regardless of being in or out of fashion, great big lumps of bronze and stone that ultimately become invisible to all but the tourists. The video includes a Chadwick. Could it be the one that actually did disappear recently, half-inched and believed to have been melted for scrap? A lot of the elements in this show repeat and resonate in other parts of the gallery. Maquettes of the Paolozzis in the video can be seen again on the hessian table. A miniature Incredible Hulk in plaster has all the musculature of the collages of Roman statues in the next room, accompanied by scratchy handwritten comments and transcriptions of inscriptions carved on the plinths: 'Whoever defies or contaminates or even merely traverses this plinth let him be forfeit to the shadows of the underworld.' Again I'm fooled by the style of the pictures. They have the austerity of the war years about them. Nope. Richard Hawkins, 2006-2007. Hidden away in an arched side room is Simon Martin's 'Carlton'. The video lovingly tracks the contours of Ettore Sottsass's totemic bookshelf whilst a soothing night-time radio voice intones pithily, ruminating on many issues that Claydon seems to be hinting at in this fastidiously planned arrangement. He has written a manifesto of sorts in the catalogue, which jubilantly veers between hardboiled art theory and full-on neo-dada scatological rant, cunningly ending in a resounding implosion as he claims the title of the show, allegedly taken from a Charlie Chan story, never actually existed. Strange events? Later, I found myself in the toilet downstairs, appraising the white porcelain, trying to understand the pipework, and then, the display of shoe soles in the dry cleaner's and the pictures of English hunting scenes on the wall of the Hellenic restaurant in the Finchley road. Perplexing.
Camden Arts Centre
London NW3 6DG