Have you ever woken up in a cold sweat from a nightmare about asking to buy a painting from your favourite gallery, only to receive the chilling response “I will have to add you to the waiting list”? Or found yourself paralysed, reduced to a sputtering wreck midway through a sentence, by a flashback to the time when you were corrected on the pronunciation of van Gogh on a visit to The Van Gogh museum? Have you ever, upon entering a Mayfair gallery, caught a sudden chill from the decisive and cold stare of the all-black outfitted invigilator?
The art world can be a scary place. Art itself can be scary, too. Maybe - writing this piece in the run up to Halloween - I have just caught the bug, but I have noticed four particularly eerie looking exhibitions on show in London this month. Some are frightening in an abstract way, featuring works that evoke an ethereal, hard-to-pin-down uncanny feeling. Others are more concrete, drawing attention to unsettling facts about the real world around us.
Nov 4 - Nov 14
Once written off as frighteningly far from town (or just downright frightening) by the art world’s old guard, in the last year Deptford has become a hub for forward-thinking galleries and artist-run spaces including Collective Ending, Xxijra Hii and South Parade. Established in 1995 and still standing at the heart of the area’s creative scene is the Art in Perpetuity Trust, a studio-block, sculpture yard, performance space and gallery housed in an old warehouse on Deptford Creek.
Named after Arthur Koestler’s novel about the Soviet Union’s brutal “Great Purge” under Stalin in the 1930s, this exhibition is about the phenomenon of nigredo. A term borrowed from alchemy, it refers to a phase of absolute darkness and chaos thought to be the first step in the creation of a magical substance. The work on show applies this idea - the proverbial dark night of the soul as precursor to a moment of positive transformation - to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We normally think of the two elements of nigredo as mutually exclusive. The relationship between darkness and light, terror and optimism, is difficult to depict. You would think that to emphasise one is to weaken the other. I haven’t seen the artworks on show in this exhibition yet, but I am a fan of many of the artists involved and look forward to seeing how they navigate this interplay. One artist who I have seen do this particularly well in the past is Joanna Whittle. A new addition to the Rise Art roster, her paintings hold both darkness and light, both authentic and each strengthening the other. Her painting Tunnel Gate is a typical example of this: the foreboding dark green structure at its centre, surrounded by murky water, is interrupted by an opening filled with the peachy-orange colour of a cloudy sunrise.
Oct 30 - Dec 12
Moarain House is a new gallery in Bethnal Green, opening with a two-person exhibition. At the time of writing, neither the gallery nor the artists have given much away about the work that will be on show. Something I do have to go on is a promise from Jack Jubb that he will be showing new paintings “inspired by the frights and ghouls that live in places of nostalgia and memory”.
Jubb’s work - normally in blurred acrylic on thick cotton rag paper - captures the way that nostalgia and memory can lurch from being amusing to being deeply unsettling. His paintings of Oakley wrap-around shades, Family Guy’s Peter Griffin and ridiculously shaped electric guitars remind me (with an uncomfortable laugh) of what I thought was cool as a teenager. Others are less clear, less well-remembered: a corner of a room containing a Barcelona footstool and some other unidentifiable objects, a black-and-white deer standing in a hazy forest. There is an uneasiness about them, they make me wonder what details of the past - between the cartoons and the rock music - I might have forgotten.
Lotte Andersen, an artist whose work I am less familiar with, creates installations that employ sculpture, sound and video to bring the viewer into (instead of simply showing them) group dynamics that have to do with nostalgia, trauma, euphoria and release. Showing both artists together, painting alongside installation, the exhibition promises to turn the gallery into a “multi-focal, multiply-inhabited” space.
Oct 7 - Nov 20
Issy Wood seems to be ever-present. Like an inescapable apparition, she is everywhere I turn: her show-stopping solo booth at Frieze London, her large-scale works in the Painting Today exhibition at Hayward Gallery, her recent Mark Ronson-produced EP. Spooky.
Her work is spooky too. Firstly, the materials she uses to make her paintings make me feel quite uneasy. Instead of the standard canvas or linen, she tends to work in oil on velvet; a combination that makes me wince. Perhaps that’s because of the horrible physical feeling of a once soft material corrupted by a thick substance dried onto it, like soup spilled on a carpet. Or maybe it’s the fact that I associate velvet, especially in the dark purple, forest green and burgundy colours she likes to use, with the dead and dying. It makes me think of funeral directors, retirement homes and churches.
My own material prejudices aside, some of the motifs in her work also bring to mind the closeness of death. For her Frieze presentation, the carpet was replaced with an office-style tiled floor adorned with painted clocks. Similar clocks appear in a lot of the paintings in this exhibition, often superimposed over their main subjects. Sometimes, a great artwork or exhibition can provide a transcendent experience. It can make you forget about the limitations of your own existence and give you something absolute, something timeless. The genius of this exhibition is that it does the opposite. I’m surrounded by clocks and velvet chairs that remind me of my grandmother. I feel suddenly very aware of the passage of time, the finitude of my own existence. I feel anxious about the ticking timer, counting down the time left before I’m sitting on an antique velvet chair, like the ones that Wood has placed in the middle of the gallery, in an old people’s home.
Nov 4 - Dec 3
So far, the exhibitions I have written about have been scary in quite a literary sense. This site-specific installation by F.O.A.M., a collaboration between Laurence Lumley and Rory Sherlock, taking over Brixton’s San Mei gallery addresses the more tangible dangers posed by the climate crisis. They are turning the gallery into a construction site, inhabited by two full-sized segments of a large monument. Instead of concrete, the structure will be made of insulation foam, lightweight foil backed polystyrene and other discarded materials lovingly referred to by the artists as “janky crap”.
There is something frightening about seeing these materials displayed so proudly. They are wasteful, non-renewable and - although central ingredients for modern construction - always well hidden in the finished product. In this context, the artists celebrate them. Not only do they make art from them, but they also invite others to. Part of the exhibition’s events programme is a making workshop where participants are encouraged to use parts of the obelisk itself as materials. The whole thing has a slightly deranged feel to it.
But then again, maybe F.O.A.M. are just being realistic. Maybe embracing rubbish is the antidote to climate-related terror. As the artists say of the kind of junk material they are celebrating in this exhibition, “there’s gonna be more and more of it about, so we’ve learnt to love it, and now we can relax.” If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.