Town-Gown Conflict

Artforum, November 2011, pp 284-285

 Lucy McKenzie must have opted to title the group show she organized “Town-Gown Conflict” well before the summer, so it would be unfair to twit her and her collaborators (or Beatrix Ruf, the exhibition’s official curator) for not predicting the flare-ups of real-life, class-based urban violence that took place in the UK during the exhibition’s run. Nevertheless, the lack of fit between the show’s casual allusion to class conflict (and its introductory text, studded with portentous references to “social differences, educational shortfalls . . . segregation and the demonstration of the superiority of the educated classes over the ‘productive’ members of society,” etc.) and this past August’s outbreak of the real stuff was too glaring to ignore.

Judged by the art on view, this was a light, fun show themed around fashion, crafts, and textiles and including various quirky, pretty, carefully made pieces: lots of gown, no town, and little discernible conflict. Lucile Desamory’s whimsical cloth or paper collages featured lurid, vaguely female monsters (a toothy, lampreylike creature with straggly blonde hair, say, or a fern sporting a pair of googly eyeballs) in what one might call the Morticia Addams school of appliqué. Caitlin Keogh’s delicate patterned pencil drawings and acrylic paintings recalled weaving, knitting, and tapestry grid designs while self-consciously alluding to their commodity function with titles such as Inconsequential Charming, Good Value Fine Quality, and Shrewd Young Shoppers (all 2011). “Édition dame,” 2004, a series of faintly ludicrous, faintly touching videos by Pelican Avenue (the Belgian designer Carolin Lerch) portrayed middle-aged women in their homes, wearing curious little textile bibs or mini-chasubles around their necks and listening to their favorite music. (Consequently most of the show, indeed most of one’s subsequent day, was gently bathed in Edward Elgar’s uber-earworm Salut d’amour.) Fashion designer Beca Lipscombe presented silk and cashmere turtlenecks, woolen shawls and tweedy coats, some draped over the shoulders of cellos: quietly high-quality, slightly frumpy garments perfectly attuned to the young-fogeyish air that pervades current fashion. And McKenzie herself was primarily represented via a selection of her slightly laborious “Quodlibet” tableaux, begun in 2007: trompe l’oeil images itemizing coffee-table detritus (books, trinkets, passports, paper scraps) or pinup-board clutter (labels, receipts, tailoring accessories) relating to the everyday lives of people in the textile industry.

In other words, “Town-Gown Conflict” was like most competent contemporary art shows in presenting a stock of sophisticated, well-crafted luxury goods appealing to a particular market sector. So why the title and all the contextualizing guff about exploring “topics relating to social formatting,” invalidating “preconceived ideas about art, applied art, and fashion,” challenging traditional notions, and exceeding art’s “narrow confines”? Does the product really still require intellectual lubrication by these tired, unconvincing clichés, or is their use itself a peculiar kind of pastiche or style revival?

Over in the UK, the looters’ total avoidance of Waterstone’s bookstore in favor of unlucky Poundland (all goods £1 or under) was much reported. Waggish media commentators homed in straight away: It “shows just how low people’s aspirations have fallen. ” Maybe if affluent Zurich (where an ice cream cone can set you back ten bucks) fell to rioting, more rarefied items would be in demand, and the resulting CCTV footage would show lawless Zürichers exiting the elegant kunsthalle with McKenzies stuffed under their hoodies. OK, that strains one’s imagination, but it’s no testament to any intrinsic criticality or political virtue in contemporary art or craft production. If those dimensions really exist, they need to be argued for more plausibly, and without turning a blind eye to the seriously murky market in which art is expected to survive.


Town-Gown Conflict showed at Kunsthalle Zurich, Switzerland from June 13 – August 14 2011


Copyright Rachel Withers & Artforum International Magazine, Inc. 2011