Beginnings informed by the past

John Summers All for nothing Studio1.1, 57a Redchurch Street, London E2, June 5-28 2015, Wednesdays to Sundays, 12 noon to 6pm

The invitation I received to view John Summers’ new exhibition featured a collage of brutalist building and ends with the slogan, “All hail the new brutalism!” I, for one, was sold.

Of course, on reading the rest of the publicity it became clear that the exhibition is not actually about brutalism, but building from destruction, stoical survival and the past in the service of the future. It is about “building for a hard-won future that could no longer pretend to modernism’s utopia”. The commentary continues: “As we live in new ruin, as art also loses its innocence in self-consciousness and self-parody …” I am not sure that art was ever that innocent, but there is certainly plenty of “self-consciousness” and “self-parody”, from Grayson Perry to David Shrigley. Indeed, there is a wealth of humorous artwork that lovingly mocks both itself and the society that shaped it.

All for nothing is not a quirkily humorous exhibition, but it does deal with some social, cultural and aesthetic ‘big questions’ and is well worth a look. The gallery space is small and it gets darker, the further in you go. This is accentuated by the industrial-grey carpeted walls and shiny grey painted floor. The carpet is crudely nailed into the walls - the emphasis on the utilitarian materials and overt reference to the means of construction are an homage to brutalist architecture. The artist, John Summers, told me that he had initially intended to use the brutalist collage image that was on the publicity for the show on the walls, but it just did not look right.

There are only three pieces in the show. Two are towers of sliced blocks of air-drying clay, dipped in PVA to seal them. The clay was once moulded into figures, which now indicate little of their previous form. Oddly they look like lumps of flesh in their own right - folds of fat and skin with a grey, shiny, unhealthy pallor. They are encased in a glass and metal cabinet which resembles a tower block, its clay/flesh lumps residing within. The exposed red wire of the lighting (which casts its light above each clay form) running down the inside is the only aspect of colour; mirrors underneath each lump of clay illuminate it again from below (there is a lot of consideration given to lighting in the show as a whole).

In addition to the encased flesh forms, there is another piece, more recognisably figurative. This comprises of two cocooned figures (the exhibition blurb likens them to the frozen crew of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space odyssey); plaster casts and light. All the component materials are visible. The inside is made of earth, its core still damp and, slowly drying, it emits a slight smell. The earth is wrapped in chicken wire to hold its form and coated in lumpy plaster. In some sections the earth or the chicken wire poke through, exposed. The faces have glass eyes embedded in them, casting a somewhat creepy dead stare. In juxtaposition, there are smoother plaster casts of the artist’s torso and limbs. The torso lies aside the piece, while an arm and leg form a part of it. The foot is broken and looks almost cloven; the arm appears from one angle as through it is embracing the other figure and from another as though it is blocking it.

In the corner of the room a perspex wheel rotates in front of a bulb, casting changing colour onto the figures, which adds an air of fantasy to the work. John initially intended this to be the only light on the piece, but it made it difficult to see the cracks in the plaster and exposed wire that are integral to the concept (I infer that this ‘new brutalism’ must emphasise and expose the materials and processes of the artwork).

What is key to the work is the idea of a beginning - forms that have yet to come into their own, but whose material components can still be celebrated. Interestingly, there is very little information to offer the viewer insight into the pieces. They have no titles and no explanation of the materials used. John says he had chosen not to title the works so as not to be too instructive - the viewer may interpret the pieces differently from the artist. The works are still in a process of becoming - they may change or evolve through the process of being displayed.

This is very much in contrast to brutalist architecture, which can be criticised for being too instructive. If we take, for example, the tower blocks of brutalist architect Ernő Goldfinger, they are designed to be communal, to collectivise domesticity with laundry rooms, children’s play areas, social space for the elderly and youth, etc. But it is prescriptive in its approach, arguably overly paternalistic. John Summers’ exhibition is the opposite: there is no guidance on how to read the work and there are no concrete examples (if you’ll excuse the term) of the materials used. Speaking to John about his materials and processes illuminated the work for me. It became much deeper, more thought-provoking as a result.

Overall, this small exhibition does deal with some big artistic concepts. The pieces deliberately expose their raw materials rather than seeking to create a perfect visual illusion of their subject. The exposure and celebration of their utilitarianism, their functions and their limits is the most direct reference to brutalism.

There is a recognition that the viewer, by his or her own interaction with the piece, brings something to the work. As Trotsky commented on the relationship of both artist and the viewer to a work,

… the form of art is, to a certain and a very large degree, independent, but the artist who creates this form and the spectator who is enjoying it are not empty machines ... They are living people, with a crystallised psychology representing a certain unity, even if not entirely harmonious. This psychology is the result of social conditions.

The work of art does not exist above or apart from its own experience, even when its subject is fantastical. Summers’ work has an eerie, futuristic feel about it, but the utilitarian presentation sets its essence in the present. The concept of the work is about beginnings - but beginnings that are informed by the past and set in the context of the present.

Sarah McDonald