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Human Interest

I just filed a review of Inspirations, an exhibition at ArtDeCaf, a café in Glasgow, and then did a quick Google to see if it has been reviewed elsewhere. It hasn’t, but the coverage the show received in advance of its opening is interesting.

Pieces in the Times and the Sunday Herald both focus on artist Shahin Memishi. Seeking asylum in Glasgow, having been forced to flee his native Kosovo, Memishi (an art teacher) had something of a revelation on seeing work by the so-called New Glasgow Boys for the first time, and this show matches his portraits of the artists he admires with examples of their work.

I’m absolutely not having a go at the writers of these pieces. The curatorial conceit of showing a relatively unknown artist alongside the old guard who inspired him is intriguing, the story of Memishi finding succour in their work is a good, moving one, and a show featuring work by Steven Campbell, Ken Currie and Peter Howson is certainly newsworthy. Also newsworthy is the fact that the works by these artists are from a private collection, and are all for sale. Hmmn.

Anyway, here’s the thing: it’s an awful show. Awful. There’s some good stuff, sure, but none of it is by Memishi, and the hang is farcical. Half the paintings are at wonky angles, a few are sat on the floor, and a decent set of Peter Howson drawings is placed so high on the wall that you’d need to stand on a chair to get a good look at them. One of Memishi’s paintings is set on an easel right in front of a Ken Currie, obscuring it completely. The late Steven Campbell’s name is spelled ‘Stephen’, on the label beside his painting and in the title of Memishi’s portrait. Really. To me, that looks more like an insult to Currie and Campbell than a tribute. And so do Memishi’s paintings, however well-meant they may be. They don’t make you want to claw your eyes out in horror or anything, but they’re the sort of thing you see in those gallery-cum-shops that sell inoffensive stuff by local artists alongside novelty tea-towels and jewellry made by hobbyist housewives. I’m amazed that his subjects, having seen his work, agreed to sit for him (Campbell didn’t, for obvious reasons, but I’m told the rest did). And I nearly got the giggles when reading in the Times that Memishi is, according to Ally Thompson, ‘one of a new breed of European artists galvanising the city’s art scene’. This is not the case.

So, the show doesn’t deserve the oxygen of publicity - it should’ve been suffocated at birth! - but it drew more press than any exhibition in Scotland since the big Emin retrospective and Campbell’s posthumous showing of new work.

My point, I suppose, is that it’s depressing that the visual arts only make the news pages when there’s a whiff of scandal, a record-breaking auction or, as in this case, a heart-warming tale to be told. These things don’t have very much to do with art. My other point is that you shouldn’t waste your time visiting ArtDeCaf this month. Not for the art, anyway, though I feel duty bound to report that they make a pretty decent plate of scrambled eggs.

Update: My review of the show was spiked, for reasons I probably shouldn’t relate here, but you can read it on my Work weblog, if you like.

Posted at 3pm on 02/09/08 by Jack Mottram to the art category.
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  1. I visited ArtDeCaf on the back of the press coverage and was thrilled to see such masterly work grouped together in an environment that I can only describe as a breath of fresh air. Although not tempted by the scrambled eggs on offer, I enjoyed educated conversation with several of Scotland’s leading artists who appear to frequent ArtDeCaf. I was impressed by the portraiture of Shahin Memishi, although some pieces are better (in my view) than others. The James Robertson and John Bellany portraits stood out as potential classics. I also loved the Peter Howson and wanted to add this to my collection of Howson’s work, only to be told that this portrait had actually been bought by the artists himself. The owner of the gallery found it amusing when I told him of an article which informed an audience that Steven Campbell’s name had been mis-spelt. Perhaps Mr Mortram needs glasses? He also mentioned that an exhibition of this type is liable to rock the conventionalists and suggested that ArtDeCaf is not the place for Mr Mortram or his type. Personally I can only agree. ArtDeCaf may not be the stereotypical gallery that we are all becoming bored with. It is a unique exhibiting space with unique exhibitions. It does not comply with some dated expectations of how an art gallery should be. It is what the Glasgow Art Club should be - a gathering of forward thinking people from all walks of life who have a true appreciation of art being made available to the wider public. I cannot understand why any lover of art would want to stand in the way of this progressive wonderland. The day I visited allowed me to meet Alexandra Gardner, James Robertson, James McNaught and Peter Howson…and all for the cost of an americano and a glass of wine! Mr Mortram, if you fail to “get it”, be happy with silent galleries, but allow the ArtDeCafs of this world breathe new life into Glasgow. Directly after my visit to ArtDeCaf I visited another couple of more “standard” galleries who complained of the credit crunch, etc. My rough calculation of red dots in ArtDeCaf showed more than £48,000 of sales on the opening night. I guess this means that the artists are also happy with this new breed of gallery in Glasgow. Wake up and smell the coffee!

    Posted by JAMES MULLEN at 12am on 04.09.08

  2. James - if you read my review, linked at the end of the post above, you’ll see I’m all in favour of art being taken out of the usual gallery spaces and into the wild, so to speak. My point is that ArtDeCaf did this very badly. Very badly indeed. I really don’t think it’s too much to ask to have all the work hung so that visitors can actually see it!

    As for Memishi’s work - of course, any opinion is subjective, and I’m glad you enjoyed the portraits. I am, though, genuinely surprised that you enjoyed seeing them, and were able to really appreciate them, in such cramped surroundings and hung higgeldy-piggeldy on the wall.

    Perhaps Mr Mortram [sic] needs glasses?

    I do, and I wear them! But I have the ArtDeCaf price list in front of me on my desk, and Campbell’s first name is spelled incorrectly (as is the title of a Howson drawing, unless there’s a religious figure I’m unaware of named Jesus ‘Chirist’) and it was definitely misspelled on the label beside his painting on my visit. This is just inexcusably sloppy, whether the gallery is a traditional one or not.

    Posted by Jack Mottram at 12pm on 09.09.08

  3. My rough calculation of red dots in ArtDeCaf showed more than £48,000 of sales on the opening night. I guess this means that the artists are also happy with this new breed of gallery in Glasgow.

    I doubt most of the artists care. The works not by Memishi in the show came from a private collector, so he or she and ArtDeCaf will be quids in, not the painters. The cynic in me suspects that Memishi’s portraits were a gimmick added to draw press attention to the show, and so boost sales of the more highly priced works by established artists. (On my visit, there were no red dots beside any Memishis.)

    Posted by Jack Mottram at 12pm on 09.09.08

  4. I have an unfinished charcoal and pencil drawing by a James Mullen called ‘Evolution’. Any ideas? Done in 1992.

    Posted by Wanda Tumilowicz at 2pm on 02.11.08

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