It’s a strange time in the history of the visual arts avant-garde right now. So strange that the vast majority of those who think of themselves as ‘players’ don’t seem to have realized it.
Here are a few things to think about. First, the major patrons and promoters of the kind of art that is self-defined as ‘avant-garde’ are no longer private individuals, as they undoubtedly were when the term first began to be used in connection with art, but official entities. Here in the United Kingdom, and indeed in the rest of Europe, that means government funded museums. In other words, the avant-garde has become, in a very strict sense of the term, ‘official art’. Surely, if we speak of an ‘official avant-garde’, as we now must, we are perpetrating on oxymoron.
To this one can add some purely practical objections. One is that the avant-garde art presented by our museums sits very uncomfortably in the kind of spaces they offer. Avant-garde manifestations are nowadays very often time-based. Of the four artists short-listed for the 2014 Turner Prize, two were represented by films, another by “spoken word live performances and audio recordings…” that tell “circuitous and multilayered stories,” and the fourth offered a print workshop “inviting designers, artists and local women’s groups to come and make prints.” The discomfort is often literal. Museum spaces are usually ill-adapted to watching films of any length. The film pieces included in the Turner Prize choice for 2014 added up to two full hours of screen time. Waldemar Januszczak, art critic of the Sunday Times, reported: “As your human guinea pig, I sat through every moment this dire event has to offer, for which I deserve some sort of medal.”
The Guardian newspaper, generally much more friendly to manifestations of this kind, did however report Lizzie Carey-Thomas, curator of the show, as saying that “visitors should not feel it was compulsory to watch every single frame.” – “I think you might come out very resentful if you felt obliged to watch every minute of every film,” she said. “I think visitors should play it by ear, and if you find you engage with something emotionally – watch it all.”
“Play it by ear” – there’s a phrase worth thinking about, applied to a major art show in one of Britain’s most important museums. It amounts to saying: “By all means come, but you needn’t bother to look. Just feel good about being part of this ‘officially avant-garde’ presentation.
Not surprisingly, there has started to be a reaction among young artists against the situation outlined above. Living, as they do, in what is still a bourgeois capitalist society, no matter how many mitigating phrases we apply to this description, they know they need to make a living and they do not like the idea of being entirely dependent for that living on the kind of government financing that may be withdrawn at any moment, as the weathercock of patronage turns. They would prefer to have direct conversations with individuals who are enthusiastic about what they do. If the conversations involve money – money paid for goods, for tangible objects – then so much the better. They would also like to feel that what they produce has some kind of physical durability – that it will move forward in time, even when they themselves are no longer present, in the same fashion as the art of centuries long past has moved forward in time, until it reached us today.
A recent example of this attitude is Danny Fox. He recently had a solo show at the very hip Cock n’Bull Gallery in Shoreditch, located underneath Mark Hix’s fashionable restaurant Tramshed, a space presided over by a huge installation made by none other than Damien Hirst. He also got the cover of the 2014 autumn issue of Art & Music, the house magazine of the Saatchi Gallery. A young artist could hardly hope for more emphatic certification. Yet the fact is that he doesn’t fit the kind of official avant-gardism just outlined above.
Aged only twenty-eight, Fox obviously belongs to new generation – much younger and (inevitably) much newer than that of the so-called Younger British Artists, who have dominated the London art scene since the Sensation! exhibition held at the Royal Academy in 1997. Yes, that was nearly twenty years ago. Now well into their middle years, the YBAs – the more successful of them – are now waiting to be given their OMs (Order of the Menopause). Acronyms are a wonderful thing.
Born in St Ives, Danny Fox grew up in a house very close to the habitation of Alfred Wallis, one of the best-known artists in a town famous for artists. Like Wallis, he is self-taught. He says now: “My grandma looked after me a lot when I was young. If I said I was bored, I got sat at the table with a piece of paper and pencil. I thought about this a lot while painting a series of still-life flowers recently. It must have stayed with me and I’m sure a lot of pre-computer age kinds had the same treatment. I didn’t paint humans till I was about fifteen – my first girlfriend.”
The fact that he is self-taught is very significant. It means that he owes little or nothing to the cosy, rather complacent world of the big London art schools. Yet he is not, in any meaningful sense of the term, a ‘naïve painter’ – unlike, for example, Alfred Wallis. A general feature of his work, despite his status as an autodidact, is the sophisticated awareness it shows of the strategies and triumphs of Early Modernist art, and in particular of the paintings of Picasso and Matisse, made in the earlier phases of their respective careers. The spectator does not have to look either far or deep to find allusions to, and occasional borrowings from, Picasso in particular. But good artists have always built on the work of their predecessors – it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
In fact, in terms of subject matter, his work frequently offers that tasty mixture of sophistication and sleaze that one sometimes finds in the products of the early twentieth-century Modernists, clustered together in bohemian squalor in Montmarte and later in Montparnasse. There are paintings that depict strippers at the White Horse, a Shoreditch pub famous for its pole-dancers. Others feature Thai ladyboys, met in Bangkok. Like many Early Modernist artists, Danny Fox has been a restless traveller, making full use of an era of cheap flights to once remote places. The paintings in these categories invite comparisons with Toulouse-Lautrec’s fin de siècle images of Parisian nightlife, and with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted just a little later, which, as everyone knows, has nothing to do with the papal city, but which instead depicts prostitutes in a brothel in the Calle d’Avignon in Barcelona. They offer genuine seriousness, combined with an alluring flavour of the mischievous.
I have to say, when I encounter a young painter of this kind, my feelings of pleasure and amusement are mixed with a sense of relief. I needn’t sign up immediately for the official avant-garde as represented by this year’s Turner Prize contenders. There is still a kind of art that is rebellious against the conventions of bourgeois living. Yet it is also, thank God, in rebellion against the joyless agenda our institutions are sanctimoniously trying to force down my throat.