When did we all get so self-referential about making art? In fact, when we did all become so concerned with oversharing?
A recent trip to Eddie Peake’s exhibition at White Cube in Bermondsey set my mind racing over these questions, wondering – what would Leonardo and Michelangelo have made of all this self-obsessed art-making? If you missed White Cube’s latest offering, Peake’s show was inspired by the bric-a-brac, landmarks and soundtrack to his misspent youth in north London’s leafy Finsbury Park. Snaking through Larry Gagosian’s outpost in Bermondsey was an array of steel tables covered with trays boasting a curious selection of objects purchased on the local Stroud Green Road and a bare concrete floor that mimicked the playground where Peake used to while away the hours. A gentle hum of noises taken from Finsbury Park, punctuated by oldskool jungle and drum and bass from Kool FM, provided a unique ambience along with fluorescent pink lighting.
Peake understood long ago as a rambunctious student at the RA that anything can be art. And that includes graffiti, dance, music and even football. He first made a splash with a naked five-a-side football match at Burlington House in 2013 before he had roller-skaters in sheer onesies rolling around the Barbican in 2015. At White Cube, Peake takes this mantra to the next level by making his own personal and cultural experience into a body of work, laying himself bare for an audience’s delight. In Peake’s press release for ‘Concrete Pitch’ he muses, ‘There’s often a sort of quest for identity in my work – and that, I think, is the staggeringly beautiful thing about being an artist. You are afforded the luxury of creating a space for yourself as an individual in the world.’
But how far can this type of art-making, which twists its head back to the artist again and again, really take us? What higher notion of human existence can we access when we are only looking back at ourselves?
Take Tracey Emin – the Queen of subjective art who has made a career by splashing her life’s story all over tents and unmade beds. The now infamous messy bed, nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999 and one of the jewels of Tate’s collection, was ripped straight out of the pages of Emin’s personal history, from a time of playful sexual experience and dark depression. Sacrificed on the alter of art, the bed is transformed into a cultural object; empty vodka bottles, discarded knickers and all. There’s no doubt that ‘My Bed’ has spurred on a generation of artists to adopt a similarly brave practice and reveal their inner most secrets in the name of art.
Since the Renaissance, the myth of the artist as a tormented soul with a troublesome backstory to boot has held a certain power. Not only are we suckers for the ultimate comeback kid and a salacious memoir, the notion of ‘genius’ somehow legitimises the alchemy of art-making. But what is really concerning is the moment when all this reverence for the artist tips the scale so far towards the self that the art ceases to matter. It’s certainly hard to imagine Peake scrutinising the aesthetic value or emotional truth of those objects he found on Stroud Green Road.
At a recent viewing of the award-winning documentary ‘Rose & Roy’ about the husband and wife duo Rose Wylie and Roy Oxlade, I was struck by the contrary school of thought. Both Wylie and Oxlade attested to the value of observation of the world around us and recoiled from an art form built on one person’s subjective vision of what a still life with a bowl of fruit looks like. They argued that artists should capture the essence of what is really there beyond what they perceive with their eyes, otherwise, what is the point?
Oxlade was one of David Bomberg’s eager disciples at London’s Borough Polytechnic after the Second World War beside Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. These ardent young followers drank the kool-aid and rallied behind the importance of immediate expression and truth of feeling above anything. In Oxlade’s writings on the subject, he turned to Gertrude Stein’s famous discussion of ‘entity’ to describe what his version of art making was all about. Stein rejected the idea that a work of art should do a great imitation of something. Instead, it should capture the interior qualities (or ‘entity’) that are not defined by the self or even our relationship to that bowl of fruit.
It seems impossible to escape the grizzly cult of the artist or our obsession with the tormented genius in his atelier. And that is all well and good if we are satisfied with a body of work based upon a whimsical youth spent in north London. What we should be wary of is allowing the artist to seize too much power over their art.
There is something unsettling about something created that is too close to its maker. Like a glitch in the matrix. Perhaps that is the problem with Peake’s self-referential attitude, sooner or later it will run out of train tracks. And that way lies madness.