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criminal ornamentation southampton city art gallery 27/8/19


I enjoy visiting Southampton City Art gallery, it's a very public and inclusive place, there's events on all the time, there's always workshops and tours aimed at children, its even a wedding venue. The diversity of art they display is interesting enough to accommodate most people's 'needs' or expectations when visiting your typical gallery. They boast a large collection of artworks that they display periodically throughout the year and there are dedicated spaces they do this including permanent exhibitions. They regularly display more contemporary artwork as well, its a good mix. I have worked for the gallery in the past and the people involved in the exhibitions team are lovely and so passionate about what they do. The space in general is just really positive and encompasses everything i personally prefer when visiting a gallery (physical/social accessibility, diversity and inclusivity.)

I recently visited the 'Criminal Ornamentation' show curated by Yinka Shonibare, which is a touring exhibition of works from the Arts Council Collection including loans from other major arts institutions. Shonibare's own practise explores pattern and ornament, encompassing themes of cultural and national identity, colonialism and post-colonialism and using his trademark African batik fabric "inspired by Indonesian design, mass produced by the Dutch and sold to the colonies in west Africa". His work is visually stunning yet contextually rich as well, and his selection of works for this show demonstrate how pattern can exist in different cultural forms. Pattern can be decorative, ornamental, aesthetic, political, symbolic, cultural and a whole load of other things, and each of these ideas is explored in this show. One particular topic i always enjoy discussing is the role of the ornament in art, and the idea that a lot of the time, art is expected to serve some social purpose, rather than just existing as a decorative object. There is often a context accompanying the art, but can art not just simply exist to just be nice to look at? Is art reduced to a simple commodity or considered pointless and boring if it can only be described as decorative or ornamental? Perhaps the act of being purely decorative is a political statement in itself. A rebellion.

Visually the show is  exciting and your eye is drawn everywhere. But it is also intersting to see the intriciacies of pattern that exist within each artworks, and in turn the works that have been placed next to each other and how their contexts complement or perhaps dont complement each other.  Not to diminish Shonibare's curatorial skills, but I almost feel like you could rearrange every single work and move them around again and the shows context would still be delivered. The works, although their contexts may align in some way would still work with every other piece of work that has been selected.

I particularly enjoyed David Batchelor's 'Festdella'  piece in the second gallery, consisting of plastic bottles lit with low energy light bulbs wrapped around the architecture of the gallery, drawing the eye upwards and away from the standard gallery hanging height. It resembled a tangle of christmas lights someone didnt bother to untangle, and appropriately employed the role of decorative art object that simply exists to be vibrant and engaging. Andy Holden's 'Totem for thingly time' in gallery one was my cup of tea as well. Colourful pastel drips of plaster piled high into a random blob of an object. That juvenile need to poke or prod something just to see how it feels or if it would smush. The simple visual stimulation of something that is colourful, something that looks edible, something that has a nice pattern can arguably just be enjoyed on this surface sensory level.  I found a statement online about how Holden describes this work: "Holden explains that this work was an attempt to make an object that ‘revealed the time of its own construction’. He sees it as ‘something heavy, ambiguous, fallen out of the cartoon landscape, but related to place in the same way that a bird’s nest is’".

There always seems to be rules and regulations in some curatorial practise, about what works in what space, what artwork shouldn't be anywhere near this other artwork or they'll clash. But maybe in this show there needs to be clashing in order to get the point across. This show responds to an essay by Adolf Loos (Ornament and Crime) who describes the use of the pattern/ornament as "an indication of poor taste and the lowest level of cultural development" but often pattern can simply be indicative of culture, especially when referring to this show in particular. Each to their own, there is no one way to curate a show and i think tackling something as complicated as pattern and including a complete overload of the different connotations of the word is just really nice (intelligent reviewing language here). There will always be someone who thinks your curatorial/artistic choices are horrific but who really cares. You can't please everyone, especially in art.

There seems to be a level of hostility or distaste towards art that doesn't have a necessarily formal purpose for this reason (i know my art tutors at uni would ridicule people's artworks that were just 'pretty' or created because 'it looked nice'.) Art has the potential to be so much more than just aesthetic THERE NEEDS TO BE A REASON!!!! Which i agree with to some extent, especially when art is created by a person with an identity and an opinion about the world that they perhaps want to communicate. But i think on the odd occasional, art as a demonstration of skill or a process or creative expression can be just as appreciated without the need for an obvious context.
 There needn't be a deeper level of critical analysis surely if the viewer is initially pleased with what they see? Or are you just a child in a sweet shop looking at the pretty things and not absorbing what they really mean? Art isn't about the viewer after all? It isn't about the artist either? What is is about, who even knows? But the works surrounding these that were loaded with other contexts was the perfect complement. It is likely ignorant to ignore the challenging themes that these artworks are presenting and not delve deeper into them.

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