London hasnt been this hot since the Great Fire of 1666.
Ravaged by plagues, poverty and petty gangsters, devastated by bombs during WWII, the resilient East End of London is poised to become the next capital of English contemporary culture.
The epicenter of the cultural boom has been Hoxton Square, in the Shoreditch section of the East End.
First coming to the international publics attention in the early 1990s, Shoreditch became the stomping ground of Britart's enfants terribles.
It is here at an East End street fair where the young upstart Damien Hirst brought his spin-painting machine. He rented it to punters for one-quid-a-go and signed the resultant painting for free.
Tracy Emin read palms. And Gary Hume posed as a Mexican bandit selling tequila slammers.
The East End was the first great art installation of the YBA's, says an old-time Hoxtinite, purpose-built to annoy conservative middle England.
Legitimization has not come without a price. Gentrification has been swift.
Before the 1990's, oxton (as a Cockney would call it) was a no-go zone of eel pie and mash, where black cab drivers were proud to be born, but reluctant to take you to.
But today, the derelict buildings where the now middle-aged Young British Artists once lived and worked -- the cheap, light-industrial spaces -- have been converted to million-pound luxury lofts.
In a dj vu of New York's SoHo of the late 1980's, the artists have been priced out Hoxton, victims of their own Midas touch.
Consequently, theres been a definite shift further east, to areas like Bethnal Green and Hackney.
Before White Cube, many of the East End galleries were artist-run spaces -- with the exception of Maureen Paley, who was the first commercial gallery to pioneer the area in 1984, says Tom Hanbury (co-founder of the recently opened Dicksmith Gallery). When White Cube moved to Hoxton Square, it commercially legitimized the East End. Other big galleries moved east, like Victoria Miro. And since then, many other smaller galleries have followed.
Over the last two years, an astounding 30-plus new galleries have exploded onto the scene -- Max Wigram, Modern Art, The Approach, David Risley, Counter, Mobile Home, Dicksmith, Vilma Gold, Jeffrey Charles, Rockwell, The Ship, Keith Talent and Kate MacGarry, among the notable.
A former no-mans-land, the East End now contains the highest concentration of galleries and artists in all of Europe.
Many of the galleries are too far apart to cover on foot. So I splurged, hiring a car and driver to chauffeur my two guests -- gallerist Tom Hanbury and Dr. Phillip Romero, a practicing psychiatrist with a profound interest in art -- for a gentlemans relish, in this case a weekend walk visiting some of the top East End galleries.
Our first stop was to see the work of John Pilson at Max Wigrams MW Projects.
A prosperous looking Wigram, sporting a golden tan, let us into the gallery and whispered, Ill be right with you, Im with a client right now. As we overheard some five-figure prices quoted in the backroom, we didnt wait for Max to usher us around.
Pilsons show, titled St. Denis, is a travelogue of the eponymous New York City building through three centuries of change. Built in the 1860s on the corner of 11th and Broadway, the St. Denis has a remarkable history.
Originally a hotel, its celebrated guest list included Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated the telephone on the second floor. Marcel Duchamp had a secret studio of the fourth floor, where his last work, Etant Donnés, was discovered after his death.
Today, the St. Deniss corridors are awash in a neutralizing whoosh of white noise, insuring the privacy of the psychoanalysts and massage therapists who now make up the majority of its occupants.
Pilsons 19 black-and-white photographs (in editions of six; 1,000 each or 14,500 for the set) navigate us through the building's transitions, both gradual and abrupt. His Moholy-Nagy-like visions reveal the surreal and stark contrasts of the objects that have accumulated in the St. Denis over the last 140 years; between old and new; street and corridor; natural light and flickering fluorescents.
Pilsons video Dark Empire (in an edition of six; 3,500) has been understandably labeled his homage to Andy Warhol. The video work features a gradually darkening image of the Empire State building during a recent New York City blackout, filmed in real time from dusk to dawn but here compressed into 25 minutes.
As night falls, the whole scene begins to dissolve into a subtractive medley of ominous grays and blacks, more akin to Ad Reinhardts meditative black cross paintings than Andy Warhols 24-hour homage to banality. Pilsons video has a moving, sinister quality -- the great symbol of the Empire State swallowed by a crushing blackness.
Our next stop was Kate MacGarry, a small, jewel-box like gallery on Red Church Street. The exhibition there, simply titled Painting, features works by Tasha Amini, Lali Chetwynd, Kevin Knox and Peter McDonald.
What ties these works together, more than the facile idea of medium as the title implies, is the use of spectacle and entertainment as a subject for painting.
Lali Chetwynd is better known for her recent live performances (An Evening with Jabba the Hut; The Hulk) in which actors wear hand-made costumes. Clock and Gun (750) appears to be more prop than painting, the crude cardboard construction suggesting the idea of performance -- a kindergarten play -- but perhaps sorely lacking the presence of the actors.
Peter McDonalds paintings of bubble-headed characters recall cult cartoons and 60s Day-Glo interiors. Painting (5,500) is an idiosyncratic interpretation of the artist in a studio inside his head, where the world of Pop meets an early Mir-like Surrealism.
On to the The Approach for some Lo-Gressive Living.
Given more time, we could have paused our tour for some high-gressive cuisine at the gastro-pub located below the gallery, also named the Approach, which is a favorite watering hole of Charles Saatchi and his food-goddess wife Nigella Lawson.
Lo-Gressive Living features works on paper by five artists from the San Francisco Bay Area: Nick Ackerman, Christopher Garrett, Chris Johanson, Jo Jackson and Keegan McHargue.
The exhibition is a celebration of the lo-fi, a hippy-dippy form of tongue-in-cheek urban realism where the heartfelt and the handmade confront the post-60s world of consumer culture.
These works are influenced by everything from comics and graffiti to Folk art and West Coast mysticism.
These are the visions of the bearded, Nike-wearing hippies who survived and made good -- people like Ben and Jerry. Its off-the-grid counter-culture that now wants to be counted -- and paid!
Chris Johansons I am part of the sick modern world (1,950) is a wry commentary on the dilemma facing modernism: It is simultaneously a symptom (the disease of the reductive modernist esthetic in the form of a proto-cubist head) and its cure -- proposing art can be therapeutic -- helping us to transcend the error of our ways!
Christopher Garretts untitled drawings delve into a world of social and sexual anxiety seen through the eyes of a Jesus-like, bearded hippie character. Infinity Eyes (340) suggests psychedelic experience of being looked at, an LSD-fuelled vision of surveillance. And as for Man trying to feed cat but is so fried out hes trying to feed a coconut bank from Hawaii (340), well, the description says it all, man!
On to Modern Art.
Tim Noble and Sue Websters aptly titled exhibition, Modern Art is Dead, is an irreverent version of a shadowy Plato's Cave. Riding on the wake of their successful solo exhibition at P.S.1 in New York, the naughty couple continue to astound audiences with their transgressive alchemy of light, shadow -- and scraps of steel!
In the bawdily titled The Crack, we enter a dark room where an assemblage of welded steel scraps stands in the middle of the gallery like a lonely Giacometti figure.
A light source in front of the sculpture casts a halo of light -- and a crack-like shadow -- against the wall behind it.
Initially confounding (most tend to see the shadow as a positive space) we realize that the shadow is the negative space between two standing nude figures facing each other -- self-portraits by Noble and Webster.
The main work in the show, HE/SHE, is far more explicit -- there's no hiding in the shadowy crevices.
Two modernist-looking steel sculptures produce distinct silhouettes of the artists -- taking a piss! Could this be the artists commentary on modernism, a metaphorical marking of art turf?
Despite the scatological subject, the overall effect is esthetically pleasing. Nobles stream produces a graceful arc while Websters crouched position almost seems like shes praying while gushing -- shades of the esthetic alibi that justified the scandalous photos of Robert Mapplethorpe!
Over at Mobile Home, painter Marta Marce is playing games. Her show features shaped paintings with undulating borders that use the systems and rules of games, and the structure these rules provide, as their starting point.
At first appearance, paintings like Serie Skalextric and Serie Skalextric 2 have a formal veneer not unlike that of Frank Stella's shaped paintings of the 60s.
But upon closer inspection, Marce's diagrammatic playfulness (the vestiges of scale electric racetracks) escapes the doldrums of the formalist rigidity of 20th century abstraction -- and refreshingly poke fun at it.
Marriage as Menace at Keith Talent presents the work of Dave Carbone, Howard Dyke, Adam Gillam, Begona Morea Roy, Oran OReilly, Dominic Rowbottom, David Smith Rob Smith, Matt Wooding and Chris Wraith.
What this show had to do with the theme of marriage and menace was beyond us. But we did notice a few works possessing the remotest overtones of domesticity in the form of craft.
Howard Dykes The Classic Style Triple Grilled Islington 3000 is a garbage unit with a cut-out cardboard screen, the pattern straight out of the DIY book on how to obscure that unsightly radiator.
Chris Raiths Cotswald (3,800) takes craft to futuristic dimension -- a 3D fractal-like explosion of starbursts, trapezoids and hyper-cubes, forming layers of printed vinyl that jut out from the picture plane.
On to Maureen Paleys Interim Art for an inspired show by the painter Mark Francis. A veteran of the infamous Sensation show, Francis paintings are far more subtle, but are no less powerful works than that of his YBA shock-tactician contemporaries.
Francis luscious monochrome paintings reveal a hidden world of the micro-sublime -- captivating yet terrifying -- almost becoming organic organisms in their own right.
Paintings such as Portal (15,000), Symphony (17,000) and Weaver (17,000) are like looking through new form of microscope-with a shallow depth of field -- at cross sections of dendrites and synapses of brain cells.
Behind this neural-like frontal image are rich, luminous, out of focus layers that appear to be sediments of Franciss former works -- suggesting a kind of autobiographical visual archaeology.
Anthony Gormleys show at the White Cube has a direct connection with the second-generation movement of Italian Futurism known as Aeropittura, the aerial paintings and sculptures of Crali.
Aeropittura was preoccupied with the constant shifting vanishing point the Futurists observed from their experience of flying in planes.
Gormleys installation, a three-dimensional drawing in space, consists of seven kilometers of raw metal rod that arabesque from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Walking through, the effect is like being in a matrix without beginning or end.
Acting as a kind of vector, the viewer moves through the structure, similarly disrupting the authority of a single point perspective the practitioners of Aeropittura called polycentric perspective.
Concert in the Egg at the Ship (a former strip club and pub turned artist-run space in Shadwell) takes its theme from a School of Hieronymous Bosch work. An allegory of the Ship of Fools, the 16th-century painting depicts a pathetic cargo of souls in the middle of an improvised concert conducted inside a broken egg shell.
Subtitled a celebration of the symbolic form of the egg, the show includes an eclectic range of artists like Gary Webb, Paul Noble, Francis Upritchard, Martin Kippenberger, Tracey Emin and Carl Freedman to hot young talents Phillipa Horan and Mathew Sawyer.
The great charm of this show is its eclecticism and energy, a bringing together of personnel favorites by the exciting young curators Jo Stella-Sawicka (from Counter) and Emma Robertson (from The Approach).
Works were displayed on MDF platforms hung from floor to ceiling, a device that left the space awkwardly dissected. Walking the gangplank between a mixed crew of works made one queasy, the overwhelming impression heavily sedated underneath the joke.
Whether a method of departure or symptomatic of something less constructive, humor seems to be the brave, wryly smiling face of a new generation of artists. They struggle under the weight of history, while trying to prove how far they've come in creating their own identity.