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Don’t fear the gatekeeper

25 March 2024

From the March 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

The promise of prophecy is irresistible, even if rarely fulfilled. Attempts to predict the art world’s next big thing are about as reliable as a bobtail squid selecting the winner of the Mares’ Chase at Cheltenham. There are few more depressing inevitabilities than reading a decades-old profile of an earlier generation’s rising stars and barely recognising a name. Yet, fools that we are, we keep at it.

Artists talk darkly about ‘gatekeepers’, as though sinister and mysterious forces policed the art world, keeping them on the wrong side of the wall. I imagine these creatures to be something like the White Walkers from Game of Thrones but wearing Margiela and smelling of Kyoto by Comme des Garçons. The art world is not short of mysterious forces (Hello, nepotism? I’ve got Daddy on line one…). The real secret about gatekeepers, though, is that they depend not on a sinister conspiracy, but on a random and slightly crap combination of gossip, grunt work and gut instinct.

Who are these mysterious figures? Curators, art advisers, independent gallerists, tutors, other artists, anyone in a position to drop a name, make a recommendation, share a picture, include a work in a show, buy it, sell it or commission more. Artists often object to gatekeepers because the whole system is seen to be cliquey, which is fair enough. A more specific criticism is that the status quo makes it very difficult for anyone operating beyond certain systemic parameters to get noticed. If you are an artist working outside a capital city, a prestigious MA course, or the years in which youthful comeliness or enticing decrepitude give you narrative allure, then good luck to you. The term ‘gatekeeper’ is misleading – I think a better analogy would be a baleen whale sifting nutritious material from the soupy water as it swims. The issue is less the sifting than how much territory the whale can cover.

Let the Land Speak (2023), Ania Hobson. Photo: Damian Griffiths; courtesy the artist & Hauser & Wirth; © Ania Hobson

It may hurt to be kept the wrong side of the gate (or the sifting system) but I am grateful to the art world’s gatekeepers. An eye-watering number of students graduate from art and design courses every year. Last summer the Royal College of Art alone bid farewell to over 1,000 students in chaotic and cramped degree shows at which it was hard to see the art for the claustrophobic graduates. Going to graduation shows and paying enough attention that you can distinguish the work that’s interesting from the work that looks like other work is exhausting and time consuming. Every year my feelings of guilt for not doing the rounds are more than balanced by my relief that there are those who do.

Not every interesting artist emerges from an MA course. Since its 2018 edition New Contemporaries – the UK’s most important award for recent graduates – has extended its eligibility criteria to include students from a list of ‘alternative learning programmes’. This was a good and thoughtful shift, expanding the ground covered by the award. My favourite works from this year’s cohort include James Dearlove’s Figures in a Room (2022), a smoky tangle of lounging nudes with cameras trained on their bodies, painted on to fading newsprint. Dearlove is 53 and returned to art education via the correspondence course at Turps Art School in south London. Ten years ago, he would not have been eligible to apply for New Contemporaries – this year he was selected and I got to see his painting. Thank you, gatekeepers.

Figures in a Room (2022), James Dearlove. Courtesy and © the artist

The group show ‘Present Tense’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a selection of rising stars who are a little further along in their careers. It gives some insight into how the filtration system works as it moves into balmier (and more commercial) waters. It also reminds us that the matter of predicting art success is neither reliable nor linear. To the best of my knowledge, only one of the 23 artists in ‘Present Tense’, Antonia Showering, has previously been chosen for New Contemporaries. Each is, however, represented by a commercial gallery, among them noted tastemakers Arcadia Missa, Niru Ratnam and Project Native Informant. Hauser & Wirth has offered their artists a magnificent platform. The work looks handsome and expensive in its grand and flirtatiously rustic spaces. There are some great discoveries, among them Ania Hobson, whose characterful and dynamic paintings explore the friendships of young women.

Setting aside the debt mega-galleries owe to the small independents from which they are notorious for poaching talent, ‘Present Tense’ also offers interesting insight into which gatekeepers currently have most influence in the UK. Hobson won the BP Young Artist Award. Christina Kimeze, who paints lush and expressionistic interior scenes on to suede, has been endorsed by Katy Hessel, author of The Story of Art Without Men (2022), as has Showering. Gray Wielebinski, who presented brightly painted metal sculptures inspired by shooting targets, first came to my attention when he exhibited at artist Lindsey Mendick’s well-networked gallery Quench in Margate. Lydia Blakeley had a solo show at the grassroots-sensitive Southwark Park Galleries. Paloma Proudfoot is here showing fetishistic figures in ceramic relief rather like those she exhibited last summer at Goldsmiths CCA. If you still can’t resist predicting the art world’s next big thing, I’d suggest you keep an eye on the gatekeepers.

From the March 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.