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New Contenders

3 December 2013

Founded in 1949 (and sponsored by Bloomberg since 2000) ‘New Contemporaries’ is the oldest of the many recent graduates’ survey exhibitions, and arguably the most authoritative. Previous participants have included the likes of Grayson Perry, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst. Two other prominent alumni are Nathaniel Mellors (2000) and Chantal Joffe (1996) who, along with Ryan Gander, form the judging panel for the 2013 edition, which launched at Spike Island in Bristol this September and is now at the ICA until January.

An observation made each year is that the works on show tend to reflect the tastes of the panel – which may or may not be related to the fact that the last non-artist involved was curator Linda Norden back in 2007. Certainly, it’s a prominent factor this time around, with much of the painting as unsophisticated as Joffe’s own. Gander’s tricksiness, meanwhile, and Mellors’ love of all things ‘wacky’ are in evidence throughout: from the oddball mixed media constructions of Ophelia Finke, and Joe Frazer’s card constructions with sand (History, Sculpture, Me), to Mark Essen’s assemblage comprising an oil drum, ceramics, unfired clay, a mirror, a plant, and a chess table.

(2013), Mark Essen

Everything will come to an end but your testament will still exist (2013), Mark Essen

The return to prominence of found objects is a noteworthy trend, so too an engagement with the everyday and mass-produced. Not all succeed in doing anything especially interesting, although Hannah Regel’s pair of faux snakeskin upholstered shelves, each bearing an indecipherable form made of resin and marble dust, have a certain trashy symbolism. Likewise, Yves Scherer’s Fructis Hardcore – a panel of fake grass matted with hair gel – demonstrates an innovative approach to unlikely materials, whilst Julia Parkinson’s sand-filled steel arena proves a powerful centrepiece on the ground floor of the ICA.

Of my three personal highlights, only one is an artist with whom I was unfamiliar before attending the exhibition. That is Daniela Sarigu, who has two small-scale canvases on show upstairs. Again she is interested in incorporating the mundane or, rather, that which is traditionally pushed out of mainstream art history – gendered skills such as weaving or childish media like highlighter pens. The results are, in their different ways, rhythmic and repetitive: quiet, intriguing, but curiously illegible – like the unsettling effect of interline twitter.

Creating a comparable visual glare is Steven Morgana’s It was all ephemeral as a rainbow, which combines a concave mirror with neon and argon tubes to create a dizzying circular rainbow. Powered by a petrol generator, the piece is accompanied by a semi-circle of rainbow-topped water bottles. Each is filled with gasoline, which, notes the wall text, is cheaper than the water they once contained. This is a typically intelligent and thoughtful contribution from Morgana, whose work conveys not only a deft visual punch but also a rare kind of care and rigour.

In stark contrast is the work of Laura O’Neill. Art and a sense of humour seldom function effectively together, but O’Neill’s Boney P – a large, dumb sculpture of a kind of blank-faced dino-llama – makes me genuinely laugh out loud. But it also does something else. Engaging with the work – looking down its slim form to its odd paddle-shaped feet, and especially gazing into its misshapen non-face – dramatises what seems to me to be a critical encounter between the apparently civilised and that which is differentiated as primitive or non-human.

Maybe it’s just what I’m reading right now – Jacques Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign, in which he talks at length about the word bête (a French noun for animal or beast but also an adjective meaning stupid, or silly) – but for me, O’Neill’s work here says something profound about the pompous silliness that lies at the heart of our desire to cut ourselves off from other living beings. It’s never a rigorously maintainable distinction, as perfectly crystallised by this dramatic, silly, and hilarious non-encounter.

‘Bloomberg New Contemporaries’ is at the ICA, London, until 26 January 2014.