Lot 5 at the Mall Galleries

It’s easy to forget—amid the ‘blockbuster’ shows of 2016: ‘Abstract Expressionism’ at the RA; ‘Anselm Kiefer’ at the White Cube; ‘Conceptual Art in Britain' at the Tate Britain; and ‘Jeff Koons Now’ at the trendy Newport Street Gallery—that some of the city’s other institutions and spaces are witnessing a veritable revival in the worlds of figurative and representational art. The ‘Alexander Goudie Retrospective’ at the Mall Galleries, for example, or Ken Currie’s ‘Tragic Forms’ at the Flowers Gallery. Becca Pelly-Fry and Jason Colchin-Carter’s ‘In The End We Are All Alone’ then brought six artists together at the Griffin Gallery to explore ‘the nature of humanity and the eternal search for meaning in our daily lives.’ Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker have described this change as ‘metamodernism’. For in the light of a new wave of ‘galleries exposing the often-figurative paintings and photographs of twilights and full moon, ethereal cityscapes and sublime landscapes, secret societies and sects, estranged men and women, and strange boys and girls. It appears that, after all those years, the parody and pastiche of Jeff Koons, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Damien Hirst, the ironic deconstruction of Cindy Sherman and Sarah Lucas, and the nihilist destruction of Paul McCarthy, are finally as out of place as they always pretended to be—but, in time where “anything goes”, hardly ever were.’

The ‘Lot5 Collective’ is a part of this changing scene in which representational art has returned. Their first exhibition puts together some sixty works from six different artists at the Mall Galleries from the 10th to 20th of January—all of them figurative. It’s therefore surprising to find Lizet Dingemans, one of the group’s founding members, enthused about abstract art. It’s ‘done amazing things for the history of art and humankind,’ she says, for the figurative and abstract should ‘co-exist, not compete,’ and yet, it’s the figurative that ‘has always had a special place for me.’ Harriet Spratt similarly finds the very ‘physicality of painting exciting.’ It’s a shared sentiment within a collective that unashamedly promotes learning and technique alongside ‘using skill, expression, and representation to create powerful, beautiful, and contemporary works.’ Neil Davidson accepts that while abstract and conceptual work may lack some of ‘technical skills and training’ so necessary to the figurative, ‘much representational art is [nevertheless] backwards looking’ and often ‘intellectually and aesthetically conservative.’ He’s happy, then, to be ‘a part of that movement’ that bridges the gap to ‘create contemporary art that is both intellectually engaging and representational.’

The Lot5 Collective is far from intellectually and aesthetically conservative. Fuerst’s works mixes pop-cultural references with classical motifs. Harriet Spratt’s portraits are of contemporary people in contemporary clothes. The original members first met while studying at the London Atelier of Representational Art. Sally says they’re ‘all good friends, so closely connected.’ ‘Even now that Luca and I are in Malta we’re still in touch with the others through text and Skype. When it comes to Lot5 business we tend to group email so it’s easier to keep things organised.’ In fact, says Luca, ‘pooling resources and artwork makes posting on social media much more regular and interesting.’ The very form of the collective, then, as maintained through email and social media, may be described as distinctly digital or even (post)modern. Vermeulen and van den Akker have theorised that ‘[i]t was the 2000s. . . that the maturity and availability of “digital” technologies and “renewable” technologies reached a critical threshold; the millennial generation came of age determined to recreate the world in its own image’. In a way, the traditional techniques of figurative art are actually being renewed through the very technologies that gave rise to the modern and postmodern from which the collective differentiates itself from. There is a sense of this twisting of history back upon itself in their ‘slogan’ (another ‘contemporary’ feature reminiscent of ‘brand’ and ‘presence’) as ‘figurative art for the future.’

Vermeulen and van den Akker argue that the re-emergence of the figurative in a meta-modern vein is ‘intertwined with social and economic tendencies that have come to be labeled under the cognomen of global capitalism.’ It is characterised by the re-emergence of the ‘figure of utopia’: a movement oscillating between the tendencies of modern-sincerity and postmodern-irony as newly emerging figurative artists are no doubt aware of the problems inherent to ‘representation’ as indebted to modernity. But rather than flee into the abstraction and the heady conceptualism of ‘po-mo’, they have, instead, begun to institute a new dynamic between these two prior traditions. This is accompanied by ‘a renewed sense of empathy, reinvigorated constructive engagement, a reappreciation of narrative and a return to craftswo/manship.’ The same is true of the Lot5 Collective’s thoughtful works.

In regard to the very near future, all of the artists seem happier and less stressed than could be expected on the eve of their first show. Neil says that the collective ‘at a practical level, allows us to pool resources and all help out. Putting on an exhibition is hard work, and sharing the work is enormously helpful.’ But also, on a ‘slightly more subtle point, is that being part of something bigger than an individual artist shifts the dynamic somewhat. A lot of artists are uncomfortable with promoting themselves or their work. If they’re promoting a group rather than themselves then that’s a little different and a lot easier.’ Luca agrees, ‘Neil is right about the fact that most artists are bad at self-promoting and most of the issue lies in a lack of self-confidence. The problem is that the process of creating art is extremely personal and any artist having something worth saying exposes intimate feelings and thoughts to the wider world, which, in itself, invites criticism. But one of the pitfalls of studio practice is the tendency to rely on processes that have worked in the past, though over time this might discourage an artist from taking risks when it comes to creating new work. Seeing what other artists do and the way they achieve results, challenges one’s creative process.’ The truth of this and of the return of the figurative will be on show from tomorrow onwards.

The Lot 5 Collective's exhibition is at Mall Galleries, London, Jan 10th - 20th 2017. See http://lot5collective.com for more details

D.S. Graham