REVIEW: THE CRISIS COMMISSION @ SOMERSET HOUSE

Let me make something clear from the onset of this article: I like Lo-fi and DIY ethos in art. I think it stems from my small town northern upbringing and my love of 70’s punk. Therefore, as a rule I tend to have quite a cynical view of the art establishment. I’m a believer in the Gustav Metzger, auto-destructive school of thought that art should destroy itself before it can fall into the hands of collectors and commercial galleries.

So with the baggage of my own opinionated view of the art world I found myself sat on the Circle Line heading towards Somerset House for the Crisis Commission exhibition. This exhibition featured works by the likes of Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Anthony Caro, Bob and Roberta Smith, Gillian Wearing, Jonathan Yea, Nathan Coley and Nike Neelova. The aim of this exhibition: To bring together some of the biggest names in British art to raise both awareness and money for the homeless.

Walking into what is a pristine, newly converted white cube space I was confronted with the very well dressed people, with big posh cameras, quaffing champagne taking photos of Tracey Emin stood in front of one of her two clinical, neon pieces in the show. On first impressions I find it hard to make the connection between the stark reality of homelessness and the overtly hyped up promotion surrounding the show.

Taking my little notebook out of my pocket I decided to walk away from Emin, Wearing and the likes and instead of going for yet another homogenous quote accompanied with a picture of the artist stood by their work I would write about what I think really matters in this exhibition: The subject matter and the art.

So the space is divided into four main rooms and the artists (with the exception of Caro) have all made work in response to the subject of homelessness, property, isolation and space. For me the subject of space or territory was what I found the most compelling about the work. Bob and Roberta Smith created a piece of work in which a wooden kite looms ominously in the corner of a space with the word ‘hope’ written on it. Its tail, strewn across the floor divides the floor and seems to serve as a barrier, a tool to restrict access to a door. As a viewer you are left wondering how to interact with the work: Is it ok to step over the top of the work? The uneasiness about our relationship to this space must be a feeling all to common with the homeless.

In the next space we are faced with one of Gormley’s cube figures, similar to those exhibited at White Cube last year. Only this time the presentation of the work gives it a different feel. The figure is isolated from any other work, alone in a dimmed space, rusting, forgotten and left to its own vunerable demise.

One of the strongest pieces of the work is by artist Yinke Shonibare. The work, a person carrying a mountain of suitcases on his back seems like a metaphor for the baggage and ownership of possessions one may face when confronted with a life on the street. His head, replaced with a map of the stars has an extract from Oliver Twist:

Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die.”

 Visually colourful, if you scratch the surface of this work a comment on something more threatening lurks beneath.

Another really striking piece of work was Nikita Neelova’s instillation. Concrete casts of doors are held upright precariously by rope on a wooden frame. Again, as a viewer moves through the space we are overwhelmed a possibility of territory. The weight of the doors and the possibly that something, maybe sanctuary might lie behind each door is thwarted as the cold realization of the piece kicks you square in the teeth.

Going to my favorite piece of work is a humble little painting in the first room you enter when you visit the space. By William James West, the piece is called ‘Soup Run’. An abstract, Basquiat esque painting. Crudely executed with paint containing powdered soup takes the immediacy of an environment and an understanding of anti-aesthetics and existentialist experience that takes this piece of writing back to its beginnings: My fondness of work that that take material from the everyday and speaks with a poetic beauty missing in so much contemporary art.

So leaving the exhibition and witnessing people setting up sleeping bags for another night on the street in central London I am left with a push and pull feeling from the event. The work in this exhibition, void of the pomp that is ingrained in British contemporary art is profound and deeply moving. It stands on its own, devoid of the celebrity ego that comes with it. In May it will be sold for no doubt lots and lots of money at Christies to people who live in affluence you and I will never know. However, the money made is being donated to Crisis – a charity making a major difference to the people living rough in the UK.

I guess for once in my life I want art to sell for astronomical amounts of money…

Words: Adam Hogarth
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