ART – SOUTH LONDON GALLERY
By Vera Blagev
Venturing south of Thames can often lead to unexpected discoveries. One such surprise is the South London Gallery in Southwark. Around since 1891, the gallery’s building is constructed of Portland stone and hand-made pressed bricks in the Arts and Crafts style popular at the time. From the façade of the building to the recently renovated interior boasting clean white walls decorated by gold, this is a space in which the visitor wants to linger and explore. Charming is an over-used word, but this gallery is really just that. The worn hardwood floors add an aura of comfort further supplemented by the excellent café.
It can be a bit of a trek to get there, but the gallery’s location is one source of its street cred – being right next to the Camberwell College of Arts. Further earning this street cred is the gallery’s ambition to exhibit not only well-known but also emerging artists. Such is the mix of the current exhibition showcasing work by the better-known French / Italian artist Tatiana Trouvé as well as newcomer Michał Budny.
On the ground floor, the world created by Trouvé hides behind heavy curtains. It is a post-apocalyptic domain of warped metal alongside dark drawings, complete with oil spills and painted on water damaged walls. Trouvé’s exhibition combines several elements and makes full use of the unique space at the gallery, with some outrageously high ceilings. I usually don’t respond to such installation art, but in this case, the artist has successfully combined various elements to create her own unique environment. Importantly, despite the somewhat dark nature of the work, it retains an element of humour. It’s easy to see how Trouvé has been able to forge a solid career exhibiting at international venues, including Venice Biennale and the Centre Georges Pompidou as well as having received the Marcel Duchamp Prize. Despite this international success, this is Trouvé’s first major solo show in the UK. And it is this surprising fact that further underlines the importance of the South London Gallery’s mission to present emerging artists and international artists new to the UK to a broader audience.
Continuing this mission is the work of Michał Budny showcased on the upper floor of the gallery. In some ways, Budny’s work shares some similarities with that of Trouvé. Both artists use installation pieces and a very limited colour palate. But that’s where the similarities end. Unfortunately for all the impact and interest that Trouvé’s work holds, in comparison, Budny’s work falls short. Much more minimalist, Budny’s pieces include wooden wall shelves and pieces of cardboard taped together. So minimalist in fact, that I had to ask a gallery attendant if the wooden shelves were indeed the artwork or just part of the gallery itself. Some may find it amusing, but I find this level of nuance and subtle expression confusing. The exhibitions materials explain that Budny’s work is about using simple materials and constructing abstract forms that hint at things and ideas beyond their physical reality. Indeed, an interesting idea in theory. But in reality for a visual person, it doesn’t quite provide as much impact or interest as it could. The end experience doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the explanations and symbolism behind the work. This is particularly unfortunate because some of Budny’s other work is so interesting and hits the right balance between minimalism and visual interest. His other work has been able to make the ordinary and mundane (paper and cardboard) into visually stimulating sculptures. In particular, his Cactuses, Crumpled Letters, and Data Source works previously exhibited in Poland are much stronger examples of the type of artistic expression of which Budny is capable – closer to the strong example set by Trouvé.
Yet at the end of the day, that’s what’s so great about the South London Gallery – the diversity of work on show. Some that may touch you and other that won’t. But regardless of its impact on any one particular visitor, it will achieve its mission – to expose the London audience to a wider world of art, especially those artists who are less well-known in the UK.