The benbai expo Words by Matthew Mason
Full Catalogue HERE
As you step through the doors of the Benbai Expo what seems like a giant wooden eye, 125kg in weight and 249cm in circumference stares at you as you step across the red carpet. The work was Untitled (2017) by Sarah Khalid. On closer inspection, it consists of a myriad of concentric circles each inscribed with a different pattern in a silvery scripture. It is reminiscent of the Tibetan Mandalas that are meticulously made by Buddhist monks from blown air and sand, and it is clear that Khalid made this with an incredibly delicate hand. The hypnotic effect of the rings causes the piece to shift and change depending on the distance stood from it and left one in a transparent meditative state.
The Benbai Expo, curated by Quite Useless Art and sponsored by Gamma, was showcased on the 21st of September and was exhibited for a week. It was housed in the 19th Century built Oxo Tower Barge house on the Southbank side of the river Thames. The building stands like a finger pointing to the sky illuminated by its backlit windows that spell out its name, OXO. Albert Moore’s 1929 Art Deco refit of the building accommodated the first, somewhat controversial, skyline advertisement in London for the Oxo stock cube company. In 1998 the building was redone again to include shops, hotels, and homes. This constant state of refurbishment has left the inside of the Barge house with a dilapidated, derelict appearance. Beams of thick masonry crumble away to expose massive metal girders, and clean white walls crack to expose old pockmarked bricks. The building thematically juxtaposes between rough and smooth, between old and new. Perfect for the eclectic style of the exhibition held within.
The vision of Quite Useless art is to showcase upcoming experimental artists in a commercial setting alongside well-known greats. On the opening night, in fact, David Bailey, a photographer best known for his black and white portraits of fashion and celebrity culture in the ‘swinging’ 60’s, happily chatted away with the new artists on the scene. He was there to exhibit some of his classic pictures reimagined. Along the left wall of his space were the familiar faces of Patti Smith, Kate Moss, and his wife Catherine Dyer, but reprinted with a vignette in the shape of twisting roots and vines. Then on the far wall, a huge glass and gilded frame housed the infamous portrait of the Kray twins now printed on a rich blue leather. Finally alongside this was a never before seen series of paintings titled Ganesh and the Anounce-e-nation (2017). These comical renditions of painted elephants in suits had a unique energy to them. The whole room was a celebration of Bailey’s complicated history and his continued evolution as an artist.
Alongside Bailey was Brian Clarke. Clarke’s space was awash with light and colours, a break from the dark atmosphere of the rest of the building. His stained glass panels creating translucent, rainbow coloured shadows that danced with the flickering street lamps outside. Clarke is best known for his mosaics, tapestries, and stained glass, working alongside architects to provide unique artistic settings for the interior of buildings. The particular pieces he used for the Expo shifted between, beautifully rendered panels of aquatic imagery and sheets of glass in the shape of bomber jets that had a firm but subtle socio-political edge to them, giving the work a feeling of silent, glowing dread.
Then in a small cul-de-sac room, off from Clarke and Bailey was Benjamin Lee’s the Universe of a Imagination (2015- ongoing). Known for his shadowing of Yayoi Kusama, where he photographed and helped with many of her exhibitions across the world. Lee now creates his bubble of the surreal and the meta. Along all the walls were his linocut Queen of Hearts (2015) playing card pieces. These were a replicated self-made image of a queen in overly austere candy colours, pinks, yellows, and reds. Benjamin’s most substantial work, however, was his contemporary look at the Kakejiku, traditional Japanese hung scrolls. The photography Lee prints onto the Kakejiku is bold and bright, splitting the image into distorted crystal shards. It is an exciting way of taking this ancient medium and revamping it for the 21st Century.
Then on the top floor of the exhibition was John Luce Lockett, one of the few figurative painters at the Expo. Having a broader renown in Northampton, Quite Useless wanted to bring his enchanting pieces to a new audience. Each piece has a mythical aspect to them often depicting quite ordinary scenes, a woman sitting in the garden or two lovers dancing. He then expertly renders the familiar with a combination of the fantastical, a translucent span of colourful petaled wings, or the pelt rug of a fictional beast its jaw ajar, it’s teeth dripping. They create a world of magic-realism that may not be at first noticeable but has a distinct charm that draws in the viewer.
Alongside these long-established artists were the new risers that took up room in the rest of the tower. To begin with, there was a small section of the exhibition curated by Alexa Pearson from Lights of Soho, the online global face of light art. The room was almost a showcase in itself with four different artists, each chosen especially, illuminating the little-blackened room with lightbulb sculptures of bees and birds.
Further up the tower in the long winding corridors of iron railings and clay were the mixed media photographers Ernesto Romano, Vincent Daquin, Fenton Bailey and the artist known as Olmo’s work. What was so engaging about the exhibition was how these artists methods, and the products made, were so overtly different from one another and yet coalesced into a manic paradox of harmonies. Olmo’s photographs, on the one hand, were stark images of the inside of abandoned theatres and homes in the run-down city of Detroit. They showed magnificent decaying ruins of societies failed endeavors. Then in divergence, Ernesto took ghost-like copies of his own X-rays and hand printed organs and veins in a warming bright glitter of varying bold colours. These had a distinctly spiritual feel to them; they were a celebration of the beautiful inner workings of the human body.
Fenton Bailey and Daquin both showed their talents at depicting the classic topic of a nude female figure in art, one with absolute sincerity the other with extreme irony. Fenton, on the one hand, created a series of beautifully ethereal slow shutter speed shots of a naked woman dancing. Their morphic dissolving forms, had distinct pieces of clarity, a face, a hand, a leg and maintained an illusion of mystery. Daquin’s, alternatively, was a satirical depiction of women in art, fingernails emblazoned in the fluorescent orange paint, the snake of the dollar sign sliding across the surface. These overtly airbrushed and richly coloured pieces were a postmodern commentary on capitalisms control of everything, even the art industry.
The highlight of the exhibition for me, however, was the upcoming painters, Sarah Martin, Mia Wilkinson and Albert Ellis Dean. These three incredibly experimental artists sat on different edges of the spectrum. Firstly Sarah Martin’s ever-changing stained works have a distinctly improvised feel to them. Made by combining different chemicals and waiting for them to respond, they glisten in reds, greys, and blues, occasionally reacting to the changing heat in the building and reforming into new pieces entirely. This concept of a continually developing piece, allows the abstract meanings to be up for constant reevaluation. Secondly, Wilkinson’s work was a new commentary on the female figure. Abstract scenes of women, inspired by the profession of larger women who are paid by wealthy men to sit on their faces sometimes crushing them under the weight, were depicted in grotesquely beautiful thick oil paintings. The androgyny of the figures making the piece has a distinctly alternative sexual charge. Finally, Albert Dean’s large acrylic and oil canvases with their deeply entrenched modernist philosophy were absolute and surreal. With dark existential images of silhouettes and skeletons, each painting was a different scene, some subtle and some explosive, of very personal symbolism as well as broader metaphors on the absurdity of reality. These three artists shone out for me with a considerable potential, highlighting entirely with their opposing methods the vision of Quite Useless but also proving that even within a medium as well-used as painting, artists are still finding fascinating new ways to shape art.