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Whitechapel Gallery: The London Open

14 August 2015 | Imogen Greenberg

The London Open is Whitechapel Gallery’s triennial open submission exhibition, where all artists aged over 26, and living and working in London, have the chance to submit work. With a track record for exhibiting the next big thing, London Calling headed to the Whitechapel Gallery to catch a glimpse of the future of contemporary art.

The Whitechapel Gallery’s first open submission exhibition was in 1932, when it was still called the East End Academy, and it was only open to ‘all artists living or working east of the famous Aldgate Pump’. In 2012 it was opened up to artists from all over London, and the city is a developing undercurrent to the show these days.

The Whitechapel Gallery is known as a launch pad, having showed the work of artists such as Cornelia Parker, Grayson Perry, Bob & Roberta Smith and Antony Gormley early in their careers. This reputation brings the heavy implication that you might be looking at the next thing in contemporary art when you go to The London Open; perhaps you’ll spot the artist that will define the next generation of YBA’s, or whatever new acronym they’re allotted. But that isn’t really the appeal of the exhibition. It’s far more interesting to see the breadth of medium and inspiration the artists draw on, and see emerging trends amongst artists all living and working in London, and clearly inspired by it.

All in a Day is a brick wall, built by artist Demelza Watts and her father, Brian Watts, a bricklayer. It is a very nice wall, though nonetheless arguably just a wall. But there is something poignant about the generational concept, and the meeting of practical creation and artistic. Sam Curtis’ multimedia pieces also take inspiration from Londoners. His film Did Anyone Ever Tell You That You’re Beautiful When You’re Following Orders? depicts people who do the unnoticed day jobs of London, bus drivers, builders and street cleaners, but dancing, singing and beat boxing. The humdrum of London is turned in to an art piece, and their passion and playfulness comes through. Curtis’ other piece in the exhibition is Monument to a Fishmonger, a bust of a local fishmonger made from ice, which melts through the day and is renewed every morning. It is inspired by his time working part-time as a fishmonger, to fund his MA at art school. His work captures, even if very temporarily, those who could so easily go unnoticed in London, but shouldn’t.

Inevitably in an open exhibition, it can feel like the art works are vying for attention, to be noticed more than their neighbour. Some are outlandish but not actually that interesting, like Sarah Roberts’ installation piece, of fabrics, objects and wallpaper in situ in some sort of room or studio. More intriguing is a large pile of stones that cuts across the gallery. But by contrast, some of the subtler pieces are far more engaging. Athen Greig’s watercolour on paper sketches and drawings, pinned to the walls, are subtle and intriguing. Ryuji Araki’s understated monochrome prints at the top of the stairs to the second half of the exhibition are crisp and clean, silver gelatin prints. A number of painters have presented understated and abstract paintings, a trend the curators picked up on in this year’s submissions.

The exhibition is accompanied by a series of events, including tours with the curators and some of the artists. It’d be well worth trying to catch some of these, for a different perspective on how the artists work, and how the prestigious panel selected them from over 2000 applications. They also have more unusual events, including the opportunity to experience the exhibition on a pair of roller skates, turning the whole exhibition in to a participative art piece.

A small touch at the end of the exhibition is one of my favourite parts. Each artist involved was asked to recommend a book. Choices include non-fiction, some art criticism, some comics, and favourite fiction books. Some of the books are available to buy in the Gallery’s bookshop, which is well worth a visit anyway. Human contact with the artist, whether they’re emerging or better known, is not common in art galleries, where the artist can feel elusive behind their work. But the emphasis on artists living and working in London makes their inspiration and working practice part of the exhibition.

The London Open is like the younger and trendier cousin of the RA Summer Exhibition, a chance to engage with London’s emerging artists, and see if you agree with the curators that the notable trends are for participative and conceptual art, and the return of abstract and figurative painting. The contrasts between the different artists’ work stops the London Open from being a series of unconnected art pieces. Above all, it is the London focus that hangs this together, and who knows, they might be exhibiting the next Damien Hirst or Grayson Perry. Watch this space.

The London Open is at the Whitechapel Gallery until the 6th September and is free. For more information, see the website.

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