Mark Flood, Modern Art, London, 21 February - 22 March 2014

Originally published on this is tomorrow, March 2014.

Mark Flood was a relatively unknown artist, showing almost exclusively in his hometown of Houston, Texas, until he developed a winning formula. Frustrated by routine rejections of his conceptual, provocative work by the art establishment, Flood resolved to bypass the need for its approval. On reading critic Dave Hickey’s essays defending ‘beauty’ in art as a source of pleasure and an agent for change, Flood set out for the first time to intentionally make work that simply looked good. In 2000, his ‘lace paintings’ were born, and collectors loved them.

Flood lays torn fragments of lace over his canvas and pushes rich colorful acrylic paint through the gaps in the material, later peeling back the lace to reveal an intricate pattern formed underneath. The result is a richly detailed, textured and surprisingly seductive surface. Small dots of paint, created through tiny holes in the lace stand proud from the canvas like little coloured gems. Curious imperfections endlessly engage the eyes. The intricate lace patterning frames a deep blue centre to the canvas that acts as a window of respite from the richly textured exterior. There is no doubt that Flood has succeeded in creating something beautiful.

But beautiful as these canvasses are, their beauty derives solely from the accident of the intricacy of the lace. They are beautiful but they are also dumb - their conceptual basis lying in Flood’s calculated quest for beauty. No doubt exactly as he envisioned, the works have been condemned by critics. In Frieze Magazine, Elwyn Palmerton knowingly responds ‘Fuck you back “Lace Paintings”. Love the Art Bureaucracy.’ In an art world that values conceptual rigour above all else, these canvasses are a provocative statement.

Alongside the lace paintings Flood exhibits a series of deadpan text paintings more in tune with the work he was making before this revelation. As part of a series that lifts corporate logos from websites in low resolution, Flood prints the familiar ‘You Tube’ symbol directly onto his canvas. Its deteriorated form creates a sense of creeping infestation and a crass anti-corporate statement. A surfboard sits in the corner of the gallery with the stencilled message ‘Capitalism Hurts Trees’, a deliberately nonsensical statement. More than just anti-corporate, these works feel anti-[contemporary]-art. They poke fun at conceptual art, the current fascination with the digital, and by extension the art world itself.

Towards the end of 2012, Dave Hickey announced his retirement claiming the art world had become ‘self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors’. Today the art world still feels in crisis, distorted by the influx of money driving production and influencing decisions. Flood’s most interesting artworks have always been challenges to the way the art world functions. These recent works are subtle thought-provoking jibes, playing with the art world but also playing along with it. Flood however, is having the last laugh, with this solo show in prestigious Fitzroy Square.

March 23, 2014

Eddie Peake: Penetrates the Body, Nullifies the Senses, Peres Projects, 18 January - 22 February 2014

Originally published in Dazed and Confused Magazine, January 2014

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February 5, 2014

Oscar Murillo: If I was to draw a line, this journey started approximately 400km north of the equator, South London Gallery, 20 September – 1 December 2013

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Originally published on this is tomorrow, October 2013.

Oscar Murillo’s paintings are made of the detritus of performances and social situations. Whether they be small specks of dirt thrown up by mass skipping events or group yoga classes, the remnants of his socially-engaged practice become the stuff of his canvases. At the South London Gallery Murillo relocates the organised chaos of his studio space to the main gallery giving a sneak peak into his methods and techniques. We are invited to contribute to his process-led practice by walking over canvases strewn on the gallery floor, adding our own dirt and dust to the paintings of tomorrow.

Murillo’s starting point is his own Colombian culture. As a Colombian immigrant, he’s interested in the translation of that culture across borders, examining notions of transformation, commodification and authenticity. Amongst the dirt and abandoned sculptural experiments that contribute to the exhibition we find packaging from Colombian foodstuffs – cans of beans, cartons of coconut water, and even corn itself all manipulated and repurposed as sculptural materials. The playful nature of his practice is reflected elsewhere in ‘good times bad times fun times I-III’ (2013), three sculptures that resemble draughts boards with porcelain pre-Colombian vessels as their playing pieces.

Upstairs, in a room next door to a film that follows a man called Ramón as he hawks lottery tickets and attempts to blag himself a vehicle in Colombia, Murillo creates an art-world translation of the popular Colombian game. For the price of £2,500 he offers the chance to enter his own lottery, with prizes devised by him to be announced at a future date. Entry into this exclusive competition is a leap of faith as well as a public gesture of support since the entrant’s name is emblazoned on a ticket that is thereafter displayed as part of the show. To complete the circle of mixing social strata and conventions, Murillo invites his own family to the space to help manufacture the tickets. The work addresses notions of value, of class and intrinsically confronts the different public, private and commercial faces of the art world.

Murillo’s own acceptance into the art world has been whole-hearted. He completed his MFA at the Royal College of Art only last year, yet already he has had solo exhibitions in London, New York, Miami and Berlin, at prestigious public and private spaces. But the attention the artist has attracted has not only been critical acclaim. Murillo hit the headlines this year as his paintings smashed their estimates at auction and attracted a surge of bidding. The young artist’s work is very hot property.

Murillo’s exhibition at South London Gallery is a sensitive and exploratory response to his commercial success. With renewed confidence he folds up and abandons his paintings on the floor of the gallery, letting them take second place to new sculptural, video and event-based works. The only canvas that adorns the wall space is ‘night shift’ (2013) a jet-black painting that looms over us rather ominously as though designed to frustrate our viewing pleasure. For Murillo, the commercial clamour for his work seems to have offered another productive and interesting line of critical enquiry.

October 9, 2013

Haroon Mirza: /o/o/o/o/ Lisson Gallery, 17 May — 29 June 2013

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Originally published on this is tomorrow, June 2013.

Haroon Mirza’s second solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery features immersive, entangling installations. Using clicks, beats, and brilliant lights, he enchants with artworks designed to enthral and surprise. Mirza builds his installations within his own constructed spaces inside the gallery walls. Playing with the acoustics, he manipulates resonance and echoes, so that the sounds he creates have a physical impact. 

For ‘Pavilion for Optimisation’ (2013) Mirza has assembled a soundproof reverberation chamber into which entrance is limited to one viewer at a time. On stepping inside the tiny space, a strip of piercing bright light that provides the only illumination is steadily extinguished as a rushing noise becomes increasingly intense. As the sound gets louder it eventually leaves the viewer standing alone in darkness and in silence. The effect is disorientating, terrifying but compelling. Something like the feeling of being dragged under a wave only to emerge completely dry and unharmed and ready to be sucked under again. 

The rushing noise is later revealed to have been generated by a rather unglamorous construction set up around the back. A showerhead has been plumbed and fitted to the gallery wall and a microphone is positioned to pick up and amplify the noise of water dripping from the shower into the black dustbin just beneath. It is refreshing that Mirza is not afraid to incorporate these everyday objects into his work, and it comes as a nice surprise that such basic items can be used to such dramatic effect. 

In the upstairs gallery, for ‘Adam, Eve, others and a UFO’ (2013), Mirza has prepared his space with strips of foam spikes to absorb reverberations and provide the ideal echo-free environment. A collection of speakers is arranged in a circle with wires connecting them to LEDs placed in the centre of the room. As the speakers emit their familiar beats and clicks, the LEDs illuminate to highlight the speakers that are contributing to the beat. The setup allows us to visualise the rhythmic movement of the sound around the room as the momentum builds up. The beats, snaps and clicks are engineered to have a unifying visual presence and effect. 

While his materials often hark back to the vintage and embrace the simplistic, the sounds Mirza generates reflect the contemporary digital environment. His distorted noises are the musical equivalent of technical glitches, generated from interference between electronic devices or doctored mechanisms. They are organised into a disrupted rhythm creating interruptions and instability in his immersive environments. 

Mirza has embraced the digital for this exhibition, creating an online collaborative remix project to accompany it. The artist’s original recordings are available as sound samples on a website at o-o-o-o.co.uk for producers to rearrange and rework. Two official remixes, made in collaboration with Jellyman (aka Dave from Django Django) and Factory Floor, have so far been released by The Vinyl Factory. Since the launch of the site, more remixes have been uploaded online. This expansive approach to exhibition making is contemporary and refreshing. It reflects our present day environment and encourages our experimentation and collaboration.

June 16, 2013

Yinka Shonibare MBE: Pop! Stephen Friedman Gallery, 16 March — 20 April 2013

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Originally published on this is tomorrow, April 2013.

A carnival of sumptuous colour draws us in to Stephen Friedman Gallery. Yinka Shonibare MBE has created his most ambitious sculptural assemblage to date: a life-sized re-imagination of Leonardo da Vinci’s fifteenth-century mural ‘The Last Supper’. Shonibare’s characters enjoy a lavish feast of oysters, wild boar, strawberries and champagne, dressed in chic Victorian suits fashioned from West African fabrics. Initially seductive and stimulating, the scene is, in an instant, repellent. Luxury begins to looks like extravagance. The protagonists have descended into lascivious, hedonistic behaviour. In place of Jesus, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, reigns supreme, suggesting a comparison with the decadent final years of the Roman Empire. The air of imminent disaster is made all the more urgent by the decapitation of all characters present.

Shonibare’s exhibition ‘POP!’ provides a social commentary on the excesses of the financial industry and the pursuit of power and money that contributed to the current economic crisis. The artist does not shy away from dealing with the issues directly. In his series ‘Champagne Kid’ (2013) he arms his mannequins with empty bottles of Crystal and poses them falling unceremoniously from their wooden chairs. A certain anger and resentment comes across in his direct approach which will resonate with the viewer. 

Shonibare refuses to pander to antique Western expectations that, as an artist with roots in Africa, his art should somehow be concerned with specifically racial identity. Although initially appearing to adopt an African trope by using West African batik material in his work, Shonibare in fact makes a mockery of the idea. In reality, far from being a true signifier of African authenticity, the fabric has a chequered and international history. It only became popular in West Africa in the 1960s after being exported there by the British who had copied the design from its original manufacturers in Dutch Indonesia. Shonibare refutes ideas of cultural authenticity. He cuts the heads from the mannequins he dresses in the material in order to deny them racial identity. 

Instead, within western artistic tradition Shonibare’s work is deeply reliant on art history. Reconfiguring da Vinci, he makes a move to reclaim traditional Western art as his own. Elsewhere in the exhibition Shonibare creates his self-portrait in the style of Andy Warhol’s ‘Camouflage’ (1986). He uses patterns from his trademark batik textiles, as Warhol used military camouflage, to obscure his face. In both these theatrical reconstructions of art history, Shonibare questions art historical authenticity. Fake, fabrication and reproduction reveal art itself as a clumsy construction.

Shonibare addresses these big issues of power, identity and authenticity with his typical dose of irony and good humour to temper the blows. The exhibition is a fabulous visual feast as well as a welcome contemporary parody. Shonibare deals, tongue in cheek, with vital, relevant subjects and for that reason he is one of the public’s few heroes of British contemporary art. 

April 13, 2013

Silvia Bächli and Eric Hattan: What about Sunday? MK Gallery, 18 January – 31 March 2013

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Originally published on this is tomorrow, February 2013.

A snowman sledges around in the snow, on a kamikaze venture that sees him lose his carrot nose. Not to worry, he gets up and has another go. Hattan and Bächli’s playful video collaboration ‘Snowhau’ (2003), depicting a snowman that learns to sledge, is the first work that greets us at the entrance to MK Gallery. It’s an appropriate start to the artists’ cheeky, thoughtful and engaging joint exhibition. The two Swiss artists actually produce quite diverse artwork in their separate careers, but it is work that is neatly connected by common themes of brevity, wit and an air of melancholic reflection. Beautifully curated in the space, the resulting exhibition is more than the sum of its parts.

Of the two artists’ work, Hattan’s stands out. Finding intrigue in the banal, Hattan plays with the Duchampian found object. In the first space we see his ‘Round and Round’ (2000-2012), a video installation composed of several looped films of urban scenes. One screen follows the path of an empty white plastic bag swirling in the air. The video brings to mind a scene from the film ‘American Beauty’ when teenager Ricky Flitts finds endless beauty in the world through his film of a plastic bag dancing in the wind. Hattan prefers a less hopeful interpretation of this mundane moment, presenting the bag caught in a cyclonic gust destined only to travel around in endless circles amongst the urban debris. The artist sits this scene with other videos featuring repeated journeys through anonymous locations of urban banal. He creates a melancholic atmosphere of a concrete environment offering no hope of salvation. Appropriately enough, those familiar with the city of Milton Keynes will recognise a notorious underpass amongst the videos.

Hattan’s ‘(Yes I) Can’ (2012) takes the idea a step further. Instead of a plastic bag, the camera follows a crumpled empty beer can that the artist himself kicks down the street in front of him as he films. It’s a quirky humorous piece, but another gloomy gesture, referencing homelessness, drunkenness and despair in urban living. The grating, unrelenting sound of the can rattling down the city’s paving stones echoes throughout the rest of the gallery space.

Bächli’s Indian ink drawings of dandelions provide some light relief in the next gallery. With easy gestural strokes Bächli describes the flowers on flimsy rolls of paper that echo the fragility of the plants themselves. She makes subtle observations and has a light touch. In the Long Gallery several museum-style display cabinets collect together works on paper arranged into groups. We discover collections labelled ‘Women’ and ‘Homes’, each of which combine diagrams, sketches and photographs, working together to build up a theme. Bächli acts almost as an archivist, gathering together observations into interesting compositions that echo Hattan’s video installation in the previous space.

In their strongest moments, both artists’ work is characterised by a lightness of touch, the minimal gesture, creating a wistful air of reflection. There are, however, a couple of more heavy-handed works that appear. A strange obsession with lampposts seems to dominate Hattan’s work and a full-size street lamp has been pulled out of the ground and hung in the show. In its Milton Keynes setting, a city of a thousand identical street lamps, the focus seems more poignant than it might elsewhere.

Hattan’s ‘Boy Band’ (2005) is the star of the show. It is a subversive work engaging his typical sardonic humour. The artist has taken five pieces of everyday product packaging, turned the packaging inside out, and simply presented all five pieces in a row for the viewer, balanced on five wooden sticks. In itself, it’s a bold artistic move to make such a minimal gesture. However, as if to intentionally challenge the traditionalists even further, the artist brazenly presents a video next to the objects, showing exactly how easily he ‘made’ them. With the camera on full zoom as though it were watching magician at his art, the artist shows in detail, his very simple technique of taking a piece of ordinary packaging and turning it in on itself. The joke is on us.

This exhibition is brave programming from MK Gallery. It is the artists’ first show in the UK and it’s not an exhibition that will appeal to everyone. There was only one comment pinned to the comments board in the gallery and it complained of the exhibition’s ‘utter banality’. Actually, ‘banality’ is a fair summary of the artists’ interests, but if you’re willing to engage with the subtleties of their artworks, you will come across some pertinent observations in their study of the mundanity of contemporary urban life.

 

Details of upcoming exhibitions at MK Gallery are available on their website.

March 24, 2013

An Interview with Emerging Artist Hanae Utamura

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Hanae Utamura’s work combines a raw energy with a tightly scripted conceptual basis, two forces which play out to great emotional effect. In “Red Line” (2011) Utamura repeatedly runs back and forth towards the edge of a cliff throwing red paint in the face of a strong headwind acting against her. She is attempting to draw a red line in paint to connect the top of the white cliffs of Dover to the sea below. The work combines a visual drama with a dizzying sense of futility in the face of nature. Utamura has also made some poignant work in response to the damage caused by the Tsunami in her home country of Japan.

I met up with Hanae Utamura to learn more about her practice.

Kate Pantling: Your artwork can be understood instinctively and doesn’t rely on the viewer’s knowledge of artistic traditions. I wondered if this immediacy is something that motivates you?

Hanae Utamura: I wanted to create art about life in general, not just about art. I studied for my BA at Goldsmiths between 2002-4 and then went back to Japan and worked there full-time for five years. I had studied only art but my gaze was towards society and I decided that I could not say anything through my work without having my own experience of working life. In Japan there are a lot of “salary men” who work from early in the morning until midnight. These people became my focus and I wanted to make art that could reach them. I had an unconscious rule that I should not make any work during this period because my aim was to understand how these people were feeling. I think of this period as part of my artistic practice.

Kate Pantling: In the same way that you understand your working life as contributing to your artistic output, a lot of the work you produce today is performative. The energy and vitality in your work suggests a comparison with action painting of Jackson Pollock and the New York school of the 1950’s. Have you thought about that connection?

Hanae Utamura: One of my first works “Splashing Water at Trafalgar Square” (2010) involved spraying water on the ground in front of the National Gallery. I always think about energy and this work was a version of action painting. I was making an impermanent version in collaboration with the visitors’ footprints. This work aimed to deconstruct authenticity because it was not created by the artist alone. It was durational and ephemeral rather than a permanent oil painting.

Kate Pantling: This concept of fragility is an interesting one. The performance “Red Line” appears documented on your website as a video. Were you tempted to go back and revisit the site to see if the rain has completed the line you began making?

Hanae Utamura: The work is the action itself – it’s durational. I’m going backwards and forwards, pouring the paint against the wind. I wasn’t interested in re-photographing the site as I wanted to create a narrative without a clear ending. I’m very interested in the concept of myth. Today you can never get to the core of an issue. There are so many sources of information, in news stories spread on the internet for example, you can never know the true story. I’m also interested in Christianity and how the narratives of that religion have created art. The art object itself also has a power. That is one of my central concerns.

Kate Pantling: That concern is expressed in the materials that you use in your work which have an importance in themselves. The drawings “Ground Zero”, for example, are made with ash from the wood of houses burnt in the Tsunami disaster zone. How do you approach using materials in your work?

Hanae Utamura: I’m very analytical about my process and for me it is important to have a good reason to use a particular material in the work. The material has to make sense in the context of the work itself. I get lots of ideas from the materials themselves. When I was thinking about “Red Line” I initially considered using blood, but for some reason that collapsed the possibilities of the work. Using red paint was less literal. Red was symbolic and reminded me of abstract expressionist painting. Throwing the paint and painting with the force of the nature expanded the concept of painting itself.

Kate Pantling: There is a lot of interest in “expanded painting” at the moment with artists exploring how far they can stretch the boundaries of painting itself. Bringing another force into the process of painting adds a whole new dimension. From where does your interest in painting originate?

Hanae Utamura: All of my works come from my background in painting. As an artist, painting was my medium until I studied at Goldsmiths. For me, “Red Line” is making a temporal painting on earth. My works with plaster such as “Drop” (2012) are born from layers of actions, pouring plaster from the top of a wall, scraping the plaster, and lots of repetition to create an installation. I see these works as three-dimensional paintings.

More details about Hanae Utamura’s artwork and upcoming exhibitions can be found on her website at www.hanaeutamura.com.

November 7, 2012

Anthony Gormley’s Another Place at Crosby Beach

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I had wanted to visit Anthony Gormley’s “Another Place” for some time but without much sense of what such a visit might be like. As a work set over a large expanse of landscape, minimal in its appearance and relying on a mastery of space and scale for its effect, before you see the work in person its impact really isn’t obvious.

The statues in question are familiar 6 foot 2 inches tall cast iron, simple models of the artists’ own naked body, here scattered along the long sandy beach at Crosby looking out to sea. The rawness and simplicity of the works first strike you when you come up close. You can connect with their stature, textures and heavy strength. But with the iron figures scattered over a two-mile area your relationship with the piece is necessarily time-based. At first, a tentative outsider, we begin to wander amongst the figures, touching them, examining them, familiarising ourselves with their quirks. What initially appear as an army of identical statues reveal themselves to be individuals with their own idiosyncrasies- some rusted by the tides, others with worn and delicate ankles, some sunken, some raised, and others whose features are all but obscured by parasitic crustaceans. Each man has his own personal histories.

Like some of the best examples of late 1960’s Land Art, the powerful dramatic interventions of Robert Smithson, Denis Oppenheim or Michael Hiezer, this piece pays a tribute to the natural environment in which it is situated. Due to the very shallow nature of the beach, the tide moves quickly across the sand and the area moves from completely exposed to completely underwater in a matter of hours. One figure you’ll be examining will be steeped in water at a moments notice. Gormley’s work though, offers a more contemplative, human interaction with nature than its predecessors. After examining the characters of the individual figures, we eventually find ourselves staring out to sea towards other sunken members of the group, finally participating in the same contemplative stance as the figures themselves. Gormley’s piece touches on that age-old urge to stand and stare into the abyss, to glimpse a vision of the sublime.

September 14, 2012

Lucy Whitford, Chelsea School of Art, MA Fine Art Interim Show, May 2012

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The jumbled mix of approaches at the Chelsea School of Art, MA Interim Show, Part 1, speaks to the strength of the art school in encouraging their artists to pursue their own directions. Attending such an exhibition feels like being on a treasure hunt - a mix of styles struggle for attention but hidden gems shine through the confusion. 

The minimal and dispassionate appearance of “Penumbra” by Lucy Whitford betrays its deep emotional impact. Laid out scientifically and precisely, the sculpture at first presents itself as a clinical conceptual assembly. Selected organ pipes are held at arms length from the wall by metal fastenings. Sitting discretely below them, two plain concrete slabs are held up by metal stands - the spindly legs baring their weight hardly serving to accommodate them. A fragile organic structure sits delicately on one of the slabs, we feel its frailty on the heavy base.

Whitford’s combination of raw and simple materials, with precise placement and tidy construction brings a piercing emotional resonance to her work. These worn pipes speak of their histories - muffled choirs and heartfelt occasions are all locked up in their steely metal exterior.  The combination of fragility and strength encourages a feeling of vulnerability in the viewer, and the delicate organic structure is notably appearing only on one plinth, bringing to mind its absence on the second.

This is work which has a powerful impact on an intuitive level. Recently Whitford has been paring down her sculpture, and this work speaks of the resulting increased impact and subtlety she has brought to it. It is work which speaks of futility, fragility and loss with poetic metaphor. Her work is a breath of fresh air amongst the masses of self-reflective highly conceptual work we often see on the London art scene. It is work which resonates long after you’ve encountered it.

More of Lucy Whitford’s work can be see on her blog. The three Chelsea School of Art MA Fine Art 2012 interim shows continue with Part 3 opening on Thursday 10 May 2012 6-8pm, see the Chelsea website for details.

May 7, 2012

Emma Hart gives an interview ahead of her solo exhibition “TO DO” at Matt’s Gallery, London

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Kate Pantling: Emma, you have said your work is concerned with freeing the camera from its association with the past. Could explain what you feel the constraints on the camera are?

Emma Hart: The British philosopher JL Austin noticed in “How to Do Things With Words” that although we had previously thought of speech as descriptive, there are some aspects of language that produce rather than describe reality, a famous example being the couple saying “I do” at a wedding ceremony. These words affect reality rather than describing something. So we always think of the camera as reporting on reality but can the camera produce a reality?

If we took the family album obviously you could talk about that in terms of it being a load of lies. You wouldn’t take a photo of anything sad happening and people will put on a false smile for the camera. So already the photograph is being used to set up a situation which is false. As well as that, it puts a demand on behavior, why do people really go to the Eiffel Tower? Probably it’s to get the photograph… so not only does the camera lie, it takes a snapshot of reality and presents that as the truth but it also makes us do things. So, for me photography is wound up with power and control and I’m interested in destroying all the preconceived conventions of photography.

Kate Pantling: In your work, the camera becomes performative, you’re letting the camera take over, what is your part in this? Are you stepping away?

Emma Hart: Maybe that’s how it really is, the cameras are in charge in the real world. So my relationship to the camera is a micro example of how cameras control. They function as if they’re above the world. The new work I’m doing integrates cameras into the work so they no longer hover above the world.

Kate Pantling: There is a relationship to humour in your work. Watching some of the videos of performances on your website some people are laughing because they’re in this moment of confusion.

Emma Hart: I’m interested in that moment of confusion as something powerful. The moment we don’t recognise something is the moment there is the most potential for change. I really don’t try to be funny, it just happens. I’d like to consider myself more absurd. In my work for Matt’s Gallery I want to try and get rid of playful humour and tip it into being absurd. I don’t really try to make things funny, it’s just what happens when you’re celebrating freedom.

Emma Hart’s exhibition at Matt’s Gallery will run from 28 September – 20 November 2011. You can see more of Emma’s work on her website http://www.emmahart.info/

August 26, 2011