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The balancing act of maintaining a gallery space that doesn't feel like an over-glorified warehouse while still leaving space for curatorial thought is not an easy one— but it's certainly not impossible, especially in London, and this London Gallery Weekend has done nothing to disabuse those of us with high hopes for the return of the gallerist/curator-as-intellectual. writes Victoria Comstock-Kershaw.

The very nature of the London Gallery Weekend makes it difficult to tease out macrocosmic representations of broader art trends: differing galleries will have differing goals, and people are mostly looking ahead by a few weeks to Art Basel as an economic indicator. However, the weekend can provide insight far more valuable that mere art market analysis: it allows us to gauge the intellectual, rather than fiscal, approach being taken by the city's finest and freshest.

Nil Yalter, Lord Byron Meets the Shama Woman, courtesy of Ab-Anbar Gallery

The first major trend I picked up on was the absence of figurative and portrait art: more specifically, forays into artificial representations of natural themes. This is far from a new motif but I do find it’s rising popularity significant, specifically as a zeitgeist of the move away from human portraiture. This can broadly be attributed to the shifts in contemporary art caused by social media in the mid-2010s, but work like Michaël Borremans’s slick Monkeys series at David Zwirner (which capitalises quite neatly on the type of bestial shiny-fication seen in artists like Samuel Almansa, Jen Delula and Robert Roest) is proof that the bubble isn’t going to burst any time soon. And it's not just London: the Berlinische Galerie is offering “symbiotic futures 1.0” tours as part of their Closer to Nature exhibition, and next week Almine Reich in Brussels will be hosting Ryoji Ikeda’s sixteen-screen installation of landscapes generated by open-source scientific data from the likes of NASA and CERN. Across the pond the Whitney Biennal continues to tout an exceptionally strong focus on artists like Gbenga Komolafe, Tee Park and Sydney Frances Pascal, who all use natural backdrops in their photography as contrasting podiums for their slightly overripe editing techniques.

Jodie Carey, Guard, 2024. Installation shot courtesy of Tom Carter/Edel Assanti

Luckily, there are plenty of London galleries doing all of this extremely well: Jodie Carey’s fifth and best (so far) installation at Edel Assanti does a fantastic job of pushing the concept of synthetic nature to the absolute limit. Guard is a monumental (in every sense of the word) examination of natural symbolism and the societal semiotics of flowers, and Carey’s complex earth-casting technique is unparalleled. AEP Studios mirrors the floral motif with Adrianna Wynne’s unctuous floral lamps at the collective's inaugural Illuminating Forms show, as does Juliette Blightman’s vertical landscapes in Heirarchies at Niru Ratman and Mohammed Z. Rahman’s meditative chromatics in A Flame is a Petal at Phillida Reid (both very good shows in their own rights).

Jeremy Olson at UNIT brings 1960s interiors into the subterranean with his Grotto Domestic series with the joyful post-internet wit that the gallery has become synonymous with, and Erin Manning’s 100 Acres installation at Richard Saltoun capitalises on the resurgence of textile by creating a veritable jungle of sewn, embroidered, knotted and tufted monk cloth in a "para-pedagog[y] of resistance" (whatever that means). It's a really nice thread to have running throughout the London art scene, and underscores the city’s capacity as a lens from which to reinterpret established aesthetics.

From left to right, top to bottom: Jeremy Olson, Realease Strategies, 2024. Intsallation images courtesy of UNIT London,

Adrianna Wynn, Butter Lamp, 2024. Installation images courtesy of AEP Studios.

It’s tempting to attribute the trend to growing concerns around climate change and our own cultural hyper-awareness of nature and our role within it (see the resurgence of apocalyptic media like Fallout and Planet of the Apes), but I personally find the explanation a little too neat. I predicted a bubble-burst in figurative art (especially of women) earlier this year and this London Gallery Weekend cautiously suggests that I was (am?) correct. Nature is not the opposite of man, of course, and there were plenty of extremely good figurative-focused shows Ryan Huggins’s PLUTO at a. SQUIRE and Jacqueline de Jong at Pippy Houldsworth come to mind — but overall there was a distinctly refreshing focus on abstract, landscape and non-human figurative painting and sculpture.

That being said, there were some total whiffs. Jade de Montserrat at Bosse & Baum got a lot of acclaim from various art news outlets, but I fear it's a case of picking an overtly political artist in order to tick the 'responsible journo' box. Maybe it's because I have a general dislike for text-based artworks (if the art is good enough you shouldn't need the written word to communicate its message), or maybe it's because I think it's cheap to combine pro-Palestine, pro-woman, pro-black, pro-queer, pro-whatever sentiments all under one exhibition (it is a distinctly lazy neoliberal Western approach to conflate every single axis of oppression), but In Defence of Our Lives (who exactly is this our ?) was probably one of the weakest shows I've seen in the past year, yet alone this weekend. It felt like one of those cheesy Canva-infographic-girl-boss accounts that pop up on Instagram, full of platitudes and catchphrases overlaid onto corporate memphis illustrations that ultimately mean zilch. It's a shame because Bosse & Baum have done political exhibitions very well in the past, like Luke Burton's Westminster Coastal earlier this year, but unfortunately when you try too hard to say something you end up saying nothing at all.

On the other end of the spectrum are the shows who are simply too cool to even have to say anything. Harmony Korine's AGGRESSIVE DR1FTER Part II at Hauser & Wirth is so visually stunning and technically masterful that its only after you leave the gallery that you realise the total lack of allegory or narrative. Nan Goldin's Sisters, Saints, Sibyls at Gagosian Open also relies heavily on the intrinsic equanimity of its subject to put any effort into story-telling. While I'm sure John Baldessari turned heads in his day, it's not enough to rely on an artists historical status as a point of engagement as his Ahmedabad 1992 solo at Spruth Magers does (the National Portrait Gallery made the same mistake with their Yevonde exhibition at their re-opening in June of last year). Marcus Jefferson’s Free Cuzzy at Harlesden High Street is fun in concept - prison paraphernalia and lottery tickets used as cocaine wrappers - but once you get past the theatrics it’s just that: an interesting bit of social history brought into an installation space.

This is not a bad thing per se – I was really impressed with the interactive installation they put up earlier this year featuring historical photos of the UK’s grime scene – but Jefferson’s exhibition is further proof that rising star gallerist Jonny Tanna is happy to coast by on the coolness of his artists. When you have big names like Lee Perry and Ruby Eve Dickson attached to your roster it becomes a perfectly noble approach (I and the rest of the London scene are still reeling from Dicksons' Kardashian-on-cardboard series at Nicoletti) and he's certainly not the only gallerist in London to so, but it does hint at slightly more quixotic concepts of how galleries have been shifting between traditional curatorial philosophies.

Installation photography courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are asking ourselves more and more what the role of the gallery really is. Museums have been under similar scrutiny for eons but as the difference between public institutions and privately spaces is becoming more apparent, so are the discrepancies behind their functions and motivations. We are thinking more and more not just about what sort of art is being displayed, but how (the next step is why, but we'll come to that in a couple of years).

Ben Davis wrote a fantastic essay series last year about Sean Tatol of the Manhattan Art Review's article Negative Criticism, an equally excellent work about the failures of contemporary art commentary (notably, the modern tendency to describe work rather than judge it). It’s difficult to say if this is a cause or a consequence of the types of shows that people are writing about, but as a part of the former camp I’m tempted to blame the galleries: it’s not that it’s difficult to write well about bad art (in fact, it’s one of the greatest joys in life), rather that it’s difficult to write anything about any kind of art when it’s presented without thought. Fetch has previously prodded fun at curators who haven’t read Greenblatt, but there’s a grain of truth to every joke. I distinctly remember galleries between the years of 2018 to 2022 taking unabashedly pride in their lack of engagement with and knowledge about about very, very basic things, from framing and lighting mandates to cardinal curatorial philosophies. These weren't just cigarette-sodden Mayfair basement galleries run by eccentric billionaires: these were bona-fide institutions that continue to run to this day (I would name and shame, but they often have the best canapes so I'm in no hurry to get myself off the press list). The discussions and conversations I had over this weekend tell me quite clearly that those attitudes are being rapidly wiped from the face of our fair city, and I couldn't be happier.

I do genuinely feel that compared to a few years ago there is far, far more intellectual effort going into the curatorial decisions behind London art shows. I first noticed the shift at Elizabeth Xi Bauer’s Rolling With the Homies group two years ago, where I had a fantastic discussion with director Callum Welsh about the difficulties of balancing art that's actually going to sell while maintaining a gallery space that doesn't feel like an over-glorified warehouse. With the rise of collectives and non-permanent gallery spaces in large metropolitan areas this isn't always an easy balancing act, but it's certainly not impossible, especially in London, and this weekend has done nothing to disabuse me of hope. AEP Studios' showspace at Noho Showrooms on Great Titchfeild Street was utterly transformed by some clever lighting choices in the downstairs area taken straight from David Batchelor's Chromophobia thesis. Jesper Lee Thempsen's Imperceptible Figure at Hot Wheels contained some insanely witty meta-digs at the traditional gallery structure  think Jay Jopling commissioning Cy Twombly and Ralph Steadman to write and illustrate a press release — and critics like Guy Brett, whose work in the early nineties really helped propel the question of why images and their interpretations matter to the forefront of the curatorial ethos in the UK, got an absolutely stunning homage at Alison JaquesYou simply wouldn't have got a show dedicated to a critic's collection five years ago.

Tatol notes that “there’s no clear economic reason for art criticism that is not glorified public relations to exist, and so it barely does.” but, as Davis points out, there are certainly more PR professionals than art critics these days, and curators seem blend in more easily with the latter than the former. With articles like Negative Criticisms re-making the rounds and the general cultural re-embrace of, well, being (rather than merely appearing) well-read, one cautiously suggests these kind of bluestocking theories are making a resurgence not just in the art being produced by London-based artists, but by the institutions and individuals charged with displaying them. It might be vain to say that I'm pleased more galleries seem to be angling for critics attention and, in some cases, even preparing for their scrutiny; however I do sincerely believe it leads to better shows (there's a reason all those big boring books were written and although I enjoy Brad Troemel immensely it wasn't just to fund CIA psy-ops). Maybe I got lucky and all the smart people made a pitstop in London for the Gallery Weekend before galavanting off to Basel later this month, but overall I have been left feeling cautiously optimistic about the intellectual trajectory of contemporary art in the city.


Victoria Comstock-Kershaw is a London-based arts journalist and contemporary art critic for Fetch Magazine and Saltzpeter.


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