27 January–4 March 2007, Fortescue Avenue/Jonathan Viner, London
It’s a very dark, very wet night as I schlepp, sans brolly, over to Hackney to see Mick Peter’s first solo show in London. The gallery website promised that Yussupov Park would embody Peter’s interest in ‘emblems of stupidity’ and the human impulse to ‘congregate amongst dirt, bad smells and every kind of abomination’. As I pick my way down a dripping alley of dark warehouses I cynically wonder if the setting could be more perfect.
Inside the small, industrial room are several markedly different sculptures including ‘Two Clerks’, 2006—two pairs of giant cement-coated playing cards bound with rubber-cast belts alluding to Flaubert’s symbiotic soul-searchers Bouvard et Pecuchet—and an ink drawing which gives its name to the exhibition. The formal disparity and varied scale of the works are immediately striking. Directly in front of the door is a large abstract structure, a white hand grenade-shaped polygon, its end cracked open and its molten, viscous contents spilling onto (and suspending it above) a solid black block. It appears to be a feat of engineering; a Tony Smith meets Kenny Hunter mélange of mathematical minimalism and cartoon. Just behind is a smaller pedestal-dwelling sculpture that recalls stereotypical 20th century welded constructions. At the end of its spiky, rusted arm, a small, figurative hand points its index finger enigmatically upwards. But both of these ‘Untitled’ pieces (2006 and 2007 respectively) are fashioned from composite materials—gesmonite, polyurethane foam, MDF, clay—merely simulating the straightforwardness of concrete and steel.
Flanking a bricked-up archway of tatty, painted windows like heraldic shields beside a grand fireplace are two sculpted panels (also ‘Untitled’, 2007) using a recurrent motif in Peter’s work. On the left is the stuff of Orwellian nightmares; a village idiot wearing a Phrygian cap of liberty being carried on the back of an upright pig. On the right the tableau is reversed, order restored and the bumpkin brings home the bacon. This is a conspicuously bucolic piece in an exhibition principally concerned with the gritty artifice of city-dwelling but it is fundamentally an image of order and chaos, an ‘emblem of stupidity’ by its sheer simplicity.
On the wall hangs the ink drawing ‘Yussupov Park (Teapots)’, 2007, a comic strip illustration of a building site complete with palettes piled with construction detritus and odd little teapot men slumped against them. The scene alludes to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the Raskolnikov’s disgust at the state of his city, St Petersburg. Walking past Yussupov Park, Raskolnikov wondered why people chose to live in congregated squalor, a musing that Peter lingers on. The inset caption reads: ‘Gradually he came to the conclusion that if the Summer Gardens were extended to Mars Square and even joined onto the Mikhailovsky Palace Gardens it would be the most wonderful improvement.’ And this is where the crux of the show lies—in our unending quest to fabricate ‘improvement’; the manic irrationality of which is nicely underpinned by the Lewis Carroll-like absurdity of seated teapots, giant playing cards and man-carrying pigs. Drawing widely on literary and critical theory, Yussupov Park makes a small but perfectly-formed whistle-stop critique of the use of public art as intravenous culture for modern society.
Kate Cowcher is a critic living in London