A “Fifth Plinth” at the arse end of Elephant

New art in gritty south London: a life size breeze block replica of Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, some blokey Mesolithic primitives, and an enjoyable show of non-painted painting.

That's the fifth plinth down at the end of the road.

There are signs that, edged out of their traditional east end haunts by gentrification, some of London’s less gilded art enterprises are crossing the Thames to Southwark and beyond (and even some gilded ones, because White Cube has followed suit). The area is spread out and lacking in tube lines, so after a freezing afternoon touring various far-flung warehouses I was pleased to end on a high note at Cul de Sac, a newish artist-run space just a short walk from Elephant and Castle underground station. It would be great if this new south-east art tendency regrouped round the Elephant, as with regeneration just starting, it’s got lots of big empty buildings, feels less intimidating than of yore, and is still quite cheap. A rich area historically, socially and architecturally, it has the gritty Hackney-esque feel that adds an off-piste frisson to art hunting, but also has loads of bus, tube and train options and is less than two miles from Trafalgar Square.

The welcoming windows of Cul de Sac.

Cul de Sac gallery, lurking at the end of a crumbly dead end road, feels even nearer to Trafalgar Square, because looming up outside it is a monolith that at first glance looks exactly like the empty fourth plinth. And at second glance, that’s just what it is: “Phantom”, a breezeblock replica of that temporary home for mainly useless blockbuster sculptures (giant rocking horse, come on down), nobly screening off a rubbishy razor-wired vista reminiscent of one of Jock McFadyen’s more dystopian works. And where else but at the arse-end of Elephant and Castle could you build a full-size replica of the fourth plinth and have nobody notice for nearly a year? To me, it looks better here: the creators should call up Sarah Lucas and ask to top it with her brilliant birdshit-streaked abandoned car “This One’s for the Pigeons (Oi! Pigeons, over here!)”, which was stupidly rejected for the real plinth. Or they could even make their own, as there are plenty of suitably aged motors in the vicinity – indeed, two were parked right beneath it.

A close-up of the fifth plinth, aka Phantom, 2011.

This “fifth plinth” literally and figuratively overshadows the show within the gallery, “Painting, is a Painting, is a Painting”, described in the blurb as being about “artists who rework the paradigm of painting as representational and complete … instead of relying on the canvas as an ultimate facility”, which means they don’t always use canvas, let alone anything so gauche as paint. The curator is Rod Barton, who works with an interesting roster of abstract painters, of whom I particularly rate Michiel Ceulers and Daniel Pasteiner. This project includes a concise selection of work by Nicolas Deshayes, Roman Liska, Oliver Osborne, Oliver Perkins, Dan Rees and Hugh Scott-Douglas (images at end), but is one of those shows where the sum is greater than the parts due to good curation and hang. If I’d been forced to take one piece home it would have been Oliver Perkins’ “The Bridge” (2012) – a splashy confection of ink on rabbit skin and canvas that prettily and lightly references a whole history of painting – but you’d need to see more from each artist to decide if you thought they were worthwhile or not, so it was really just a teasing introduction to some emerging names.

The New Primitives in blokey action.

Or should I say, emerging male names. I’m not into form-filling, box-ticking, right-on art worthiness, but I do find a genre show of six artists where all are men odd these days. I think if a woman had curated, in all innocence, a serious show of six women painters it would be viewed by many as some kind of exclusionist feminist statement, even if it wasn’t; whereas such a large gathering of men can easily pass without notice, let alone question, which shows the reduced forces women still work with. This was especially pointed up since I’d just come from a Brixton group show called “Mesolithic Pop (The New Primitives)”, where the blurb – aka “a newly commissioned text by author and psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose on the subject of masculinity” – had jokily tried to explain away the essential laddishness of the enterprise as a return to supposedly mesolithic days when men were men and women did the cooking (which I think serious research would prove fallacious). While amused by Joel Gray’s life-size stone carvings of modern technology (he also carves stone for Anish Kapoor), and Francis Thorburn’s lashed-together alternative vehicles, my abiding memory was of a shaky video showing a bunch of pallid loinclothed art geezers pushing each other on planks and barrels – basically a DIY beer wagon – down a Dundee hill, tottered after by a brace of giggling girlies on improbable heels. Jeremy Clarkson, eat your heart out.

Even the business cards are clever.

Still, I can’t blame the far better “Painting, is a Painting, is a Painting” for that, and it’s one of the more intriguing small shows you’ll find in London currently. Professionally presented in an attractive space, Cul de Sac radiates the sort of energy that has evaporated from the Vyner Street environs as rent-a-space chancers and braying First Thursday mobs progressively edge out the serious original gallerists. Cul de Sac don’t have exhibitions that often, but they do partake of the “South London Last Fridays” initiative, and if this is the typical standard, it’s worth keeping an eye on their future projects. Meanwhile the uncredited “Phantom” is open to view 24/7 and highly recommended – visit it, and at the same time you’ll get an excellent introduction to a fascinating off-the-radar area. (Local hint: the Elephant & Castle shopping centre is a thriving 1970s gem that’s not as horrible inside as it looks outside, and has some good cheap ethnic fooderies, including noted Polish and South American outlets – or walk up to The Cut at Waterloo for slightly posher pubs and grub.)

Painting, is a Painting, is a Painting / Phantom – Artists: Nicolas Deshayes, Roman Liska, Oliver Osborne, Oliver Perkins, Dan Rees, Hugh Scott-Douglas. Address: Cul de Sac, 65-69 County Street, London SE1 4AD. Times: until 26 Feb 2012, Thu-Sun 12-6pm, open till 9pm Fri 27 Jan and Fri 24 Feb. Phantom 24 hrs access, no end date. Web: culdesacgallery.com

Mesolithic Pop (The New Primitives) – Artists: Joel Gray, Francis Thorburn, Cedar Lewisohn. Address: Workspace Group, Unit 2, Canterbury Court, 1- 3 Brixton Road London SW9 6DE. Times: until 19 Feb 2012, Fri-Sun 12-6pm. Web: new-primitives.blogspot.com

Below: works from “Painting, is a Painting, is a Painting” at Cul de Sac, London SE1, Feb 2012

Dan Rees: untitled, 2011

Oliver Perkins: The Bridge, 2012

Hugh Scott-Douglas: untitled, 2012

Roman Liska: untitled (dazzle), 2011; Déjà Vu, 2011; untitled (wicked, sis!), 2012

Oliver Osborne (right): NIMM LIEBER EIN TAXI!, 2012

Nicolas Deshayes: Collective Naturals, 2012

Bye bye Cul de Sac – the Phantom plinth viewed from inside the gallery

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