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Street Hassle at the Marlborough Contemporary Gallery

26 August 2017 | Oskar Oprey

For their summer exhibition, Marlborough Contemporary are inviting us to take a walk on the wild side, staging a group show that aims to turn their London space into “an ambassador of New York Grit”; an embassy devoted to the gutter. Taking its title from Lou Reed’s 1971 tragicomic rock-song-cum-ballad of the same name (which documents the “mundane and harrowing details of New York life”) the show brings together a small but powerful selection of works from seven artists, working over a 40-year period. From Andy Warhol to Nate Lowman, each has scoured the sidewalks of Manhattan for subject matter and raw material.

Upon entry, two of John Ahearn’s trademark plaster portraits - Steve Cannon and Tiffany - immediately grab your attention. Bright, alluring and almost folksy, Ahearn’s work seems to spring out from the wall, like figureheads from ancient sailing ships. Instead of Mermaids and Greek Gods, he portrays his ordinary South Bronx neighbours, from friends and fellow artists to the poor, the drug-addicted and the marginalised - those that are often excluded from contemporary society in general, let alone the art world. They have an optimistic, unifying aura that seems particularly relevant given the current climate; a larger exhibition of Ahearn’s work in London is long overdue.


Installation View © Luke Andrew Walker

Works by Andy Warhol and Anne Collier, displayed a few feet away from each other, create a chilling (but morbidly fascinating) frisson when taking into account their subject matter and historical context. Collier, famed for her use of photographic appropriation, exhibits a fairly recent piece from 2011 entitled Valerie: a small stack of books, only their thin spines visible, is juxtaposed against a stark white background. Closer inspection reveals them to be different editions of the same title, The Scum Manifesto, radical feminist Valerie Solanas’ call to arms to rid the world of what she perceived to be its main problem: the entire male population. Solanas was the sole member of S.C.U.M. (the Society for Cutting Up Men) but is more widely remembered for her attempted murder of Andy Warhol. Convinced that the famous pop artist (whom she had a loose association with) was trying to steal her ideas, she shot him at point blank range at his downtown studio in the summer of 1968.


Installation View © Luke Andrew Walker

Surviving, but never really recovering from the incident, Warhol spent the rest of his life in fear of a second attempt by his would-be assassin. Valerie, after her release from prison and various mental hospitals, didn’t ease his mind with her repeated and threatening phone calls. Her manifesto, originally self-published and hawked on street corners, has become a much reprinted and fetishised collector’s item, as is apparent in Collier’s photograph. Valerie’s inclusion - in an indirect, roundabout kind of way - in the same group show as her silver-haired nemesis creates a dark, ironic subtext to the work. It should come as no surprise that poor, terrified Andy’s contribution to the show, cowering in the corner, is a black and white silkscreen of sharpened kitchen knives. The two torment each other in death as they did in life.

The threat of violence crops up again in Walter Robinson’s Crime, the most recent of the 11 pieces on display. The foul deed in question has yet to be committed, but we can be sure the victim is the young woman whose portrait takes up the forefront of the painting. Our eyes follow her gaze, glancing apprehensively over her shoulder at the barely rendered villain – just a few slapdash black brushstrokes – lurking only a few feet behind. We can all probably recall at least one occasion, wandering down a late-night London street, where we had the distinct and dreadful feeling that someone was following us. Not all the works on show relate to doom and gloom, and Robinson’s second, earlier painting of some yet to be opened beer bottles hint towards the fun and celebratory experiences that can unfold on our streets. 


Installation View © Luke Andrew Walker

The Marlborough Gallery acknowledge the irony of hosting this exhibition in a plush, fancy gallery in Albermarle Street, whose windows look out onto the Alexander Wang store below, claiming that the works in Street Hassle will have a “particular resonance transplanted to polished Mayfair”. Would this exhibition be better suited to a rapidly changing London borough such as Dalston or Peckham? Somewhere with more of an historic affiliation with the kind of not-so-old New York these artworks deal with? Mayfair was never gritty, and has always been a wealthy part of town; you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only crimes committed on these streets are diamond heists and the shoplifting of luxury clothing. 

But then again – even long-term Kensington and Chelsea residents are under threat from soaring rents and rapid gentrification. London and New York are cities in a state of flux; Street Hassle offers a welcome pedestal to the elements of city life – both good and bad – that can’t be micromanaged by property developers and planning departments.

Street Hassle runs at the Marlborough Contemporary Gallery till 23 September. Entry is free.
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