When I first arrived at the Notting Hill apartment building that houses Bowes-Parris’ new Back to Back exhibition, featuring artists Lucy Dodd-Noble and Georg Wilson, I was first struck by the location’s novelty. But while “novel” may appear painfully close to the derisive “decorative”, this is no knock to the show itself: the hulking, well-kept Georgian block seems about as likely to house an art exhibition as a wardrobe is to host an alternate universe. But much as Lucy Pevensie entered Narnia, I dutifully followed curator Anna Woodward up the winding steps to what could generously be deemed the building’s penthouse, but taking the repurposed flat’s gutted nature, would more aptly be described as its attic.
It was there, as I stood catching my breath at the show’s threshold, that I noted this exhibition must be read in two separate senses: as exhibition, but also as intervention. Because, sure, this did in fact comprise what was purported on the label; paintings were hung on the walls, sculptures were littered tastefully throughout the apartment’s four primary rooms, thus marking it, in every primary sense, as an exhibition. But wiles and wit, charm and ingenuity are poorly captured by these checklisted parameters, and what was achieved extended far beyond the bounds of the tiresome, white-walled undertakings of many of the city's galleries.
No doubt, the work on display stood up on its own merit. Daisy Dodd-Noble’s ultra-smooth, “bubblegum” landscapes draw the viewer in under a false pretense of pastel comfort, executing its bait-and-switch to perfection: it is the same laxity of line and breeziness of hue that prove so discomfiting, refusing to grant the viewer any firm reference to the real. The result is a smile that hides an unsure chuckle, leaving the viewer searching for steady ground. This is perhaps a close relative to the unease we feel when faced with saccharine children’s shows – so dreamy as to be uncanny, the sweetness surreptitiously boring a hole through your molars.
Likewise, Georg Wilson’s “goblins” unnerve, albeit in a much more forward way. At once infantile and geriatric, the insouciant humor of the Benjamin Button-esque figures belies something much more sinister – while comparable to the illustrations of children’s literature, these figures do not have the benefit of context. In a children’s book, we are firmly reminded of its reductive binaries and their outcomes: foreboding and nuance, as far as I can remember, are outside the range of a five-year-old’s conception of the world. But there is no such assurance here – not “evil” in themselves, Wilson’s goblins remind us that in fact “good” and “evil” prove unhelpful terms when trying to make sense of reality.
These pieces, yes, were wonderful to take in as I walked room to room; even in a lockdown, in a completely gutted flat, instinct takes over, and I walked from work to work in contemplative silence. And even then, this still proved half the story. With each croak of the unsanded floorboards underfoot, and each glance outside onto the happenings of a wealthy London suburb, the terms of Woodward and Cassandra Bowes’ sublime joke set in, whispered out of the corner of their collective mouth. Together, they have made artifice of artifice’s absence: the very DIY aesthetic they so aptly make use of proves only a clever simulacrum of grunge’s grit, all to their ingenious benefit. If one were to note that one of Dodd-Noble’s paintings might look just as good in a sitting room as it does in Bowes-Parris’ top-floor shell, it might be because building itself is likely much the same; both rooms’ light or orientation may complement the work, not despite their radical difference, but instead because they may in fact be the same. Despite the location’s (seemingly) radical departure from the norm, Woodward and Bowes have brought Dodd-Noble and Wilson’s work to a context closer to the home than any Mayfair gallery ever could – simply put, in another home, only without the comfort. All the while, they’re expanding the bounds of their own exhibitional practice along the way.
What’s more, this affectation is only enhanced by the digital nature of the exhibition. Photographed to be put online and never due to be seen in person, DIY’s pitfalls – the volatility and unpredictability of untraditional locales – is almost entirely mitigated, with work being able to be swiftly taken away to the safer pastures of bubble wrap and storage. Much the same, DIY's romance is convincingly staged through photographic evidence: presented with a photograph of a felled tree in a forest, it matters not whether we ourselves have heard the sound, because the ringing of its echo, real or not, feels just as true. In short, they have staged a collector’s dream: all the thrill of radicality with none of its consequences.
But if you are now mildly peeved reading this, feeling duped by a pair of twenty-somethings who have harnessed the power of wily ingenuity and youthful gumption, only to turn it to their material advantage: don’t be. That would only miss the point, obfuscating the real success here. Because the reality is what Woodward and Bowes have done is far more interesting than actually putting up a show in some decrepit warehouse; that’s been done a million times before, and often does the artwork, and by extension, the artists, few favors. While the sentiment would have been nice, that is far more sophomoric than what is at hand. Because in reality, the art world – its exhibitions, openings, galleries, and collectors – is little more than a game, often played to keep newcomers (like Woodward and Bowes) out. And here, by hook or by crook, both curator and gallerist, in opening a show, have managed to get some playing time. So by playing the game to perfection, using all of the art world’s cunning to produce something new while carrying it off with a bit of polish, they’ve both just used that time to score hat-tricks, as far as I’m concerned.
Access the exhibition here, running until March 16th.