"Contemporary British Landscape," Aug 6-Sept. 19, 1999, at Flowers East, 199 and 282 Richmond Road, London.
"Contemporary British Landscape" is the perfect summer exhibition. The show features stalwarts of British art like Lucian Freud along with a good handful of up-and-comers, all grappling with the grand tradition of British landscape painting -- representations of "this earth, this realm, this England." And as befits a dystopian millennium, the British landscape on view here seems as much refutation as homage.
Perhaps strongest in this respect is John Kirby's The River. Kirby presents not lush, green, rolling hills but rather a barren wasteland punctuated by two frail, tiny trees and a lifeless river dwarfed by a massive, gloomy sky. Kirby is better known for depictions businessmen engaging in homosexual acts behind closed doors. Here he seems to be saying that the country's oft-idealized landscape is as faux as its moral codes.
A similarly contentious take on tradition is John Virtue's vast Landscape No. 365. The canvas virtually drips black and white oil paint, and perfectly represents the atmospheric pressure moments before a horrendous thunderstorm. The parameters of landscape also expand to encompass the urban. John Wonnacott's The Barclay's Building and St. Paul's Cathedral from Tower Three of the Lloyd's Building is a relatively dry yet almost apocalyptic Photo Realist architectural study.
The show's only direct instance of social commentary is David Hepher's formally innovative From Peckham to Athos. Hepher juxtaposes a large, grainy black and white photo of an anonymous South London tower blocks with a painting of a concrete wall whose versimilitude is helped along by the use of actual concrete. The picture is covered with graffiti, the majority of which refers to Millwall Football Club, one of the country's most notoriously thug-infested teams and a veritable symbol of working-class strife. Two tiny, naked figures dangle helplessly in buckets with a bird's eye view of their miserable dwelling only reinforcing the work's grim but comic message.
Similarly innovative is Terry Setch's Into the Picture, an almost nauseatingly gaudy work consisting of three silver-foil-framed panels. Setch renders day at the British seaside perfectly, complete with rubbish and garishly dressed beach-goers. The feeling is of too much cotton candy, too many rickety carnival rides and entirely too many sticky, hyperactive children. Two of them clamber up the sides of a bit of striped fabric, an irksome sight for anyone who has ever been the victim of a peeping tom while changing in a beach hut.
The show does not limit itself to painting. Many photographs are included, among them a lovely Andy Goldsworthy (Red Stone Sea, Hesham Head). And Carole Hodgson's Horizontal II, a rough-hewn bronzed concertina which brings to mind freshly plowed fields, is one of three wall-mounted constructions.
Last but not least, Lucian Freud's etching of a tangled garden thicket, Garden in Winter, stands out as a satisfying alternative to his quintessential lumpy nudes. Sometimes he just seems much kinder to foliage than humans.
All in all, Flowers East has presented a varied view of British landscape today, and while the show seems rather big -- it includes almost 60 works -- there is indeed something for every taste. With a price range from £300 to £50,000, there's something for every bank account as well.