Simon Bedwell’s installation is infused with the uneasy feel of a 1960s Ideal Home exhibit gone slightly wrong. The gallery, reduced by fake walls to domestic proportions, hosts an unsettling assemblage of paintings, scavenged pinups and lurid ceramics. Each corner has the precise organisation of a showroom display, and each is titled ‘Grammar of Ornament’, after the Victorian pattern bible, rooting the exhibition in the history of design.
Art history isn’t left behind though, and the viewer may at first feel trapped in a mesh of references, with pop art posters, abstract expressionist drippings and minimal, McCrakenesque, leaning planks. Yet, with his accumulation of mock allusions, Bedwell successfully puts under scrutiny the facility with which a few easily identifiable signs—poured paint, advertisements, found objects—automatically trigger off-the-peg interpretations. In The Asphalt World, the bottle rack is everything but Duchampian.
Bedwell’s installation challenges the critic to work without their common set of ready-made tools, and attempts to demystify the idea of artwork. The artist’s refusal of (or at least ambiguity towards) historical lineage strips the work of art of much of its aura, turning it back into a plain product in many respects equivalent to the other household items that crowd the room. This object-like quality is also crucial to the way the pieces on display are conceived. The freestanding double-sided canvases exist both as pictorial entities marked by sinuous lines of paint, and as prosaic partition walls, curbing and transforming the gallery. Like the ordinary screens once used in picture exhibitions and conference halls, they also, entirely pragmatically, provide more hanging space. Bedwell pushes the irony of his appropriation of this redundant practice right to the end by sticking posters on some of them. The Asphalt World is another stage in the artist’s ongoing project to desecrate the art object, a project begun with the infamous gesamtkunstwerks of the London art collective BANK, the group he co-founded in 1991 and which continued until 2003.
By denying his production the ‘artwork status of exception’, the artist runs the risk of seeing his exhibition ending up looking like in a pile of stuff dumped in the space, and The Asphalt World may well appear to some as dreary or dead. It is saved by the discrete but meticulous links established between each object, and a clearly voiced condemnation of mass media manipulation of the female body, echoing the emphasis on the domestic, the woman’s realm par excellence . On top of a coffee table, a ceramic shoe stamps on a pile of Playboy magazines, while wall-hung glossy advertisements have had their lettering sprayed off to leave only the alluring womanly figures supposed to attract potential buyers.
This removal highlights the absurdity of marketing strategies which still consider a nice bottom a convincing argument for the adoption of pretty much any product. This second level of discourse adds real substance to the show, proving that Bedwell reaches beyond the somewhat solipsistic investigation of the nature of art; he critiques and commits, his is an art of position-taking.
Coline Milliard is a writer based in London