For centuries the critic has been at the forefront of cultural movements, denoting art, music, food and film as “good” or “worthwhile”, through an assumed idea that they be considered the ultimate arbiter of taste. Their sway has been so huge that they’ve generated entire artistic movements (hello Roger Fry), and in other sectors have even impacted how things are produced – for instance, Robert Parker had such a huge impact on wine, that many vintners created booze merely to appease his palette.
As we saunter through galleries today, there’s this unspoken idea that we have agency over what is deemed tasteful, interesting, pretty or academically provocative. But we’re wrong! We’ve been beaten to it, for each exhibition is the product of a secret decision-making that has already happened before us. As mere mortals unable to think for ourselves, we are therefore expected to accept things as so, and thus we simp to the critics’ whims.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. And in her latest show at NOW Gallery, the multi-disciplinary artist Simone Brewster supposes an alternative reality that lives beyond the omniscient eye of the unseen critic.
Featuring a mixture of painting, furniture, jewellery and architectural forms, her current exhibition, The Shape of Things, has purposefully blurred the boundaries between mediums, subject matter, geography, gender, art, craft and more, in a mission to expose the limiting confines of categorisation.
A collection of instinctively Grecian looking pots comprises the sculptural series Tropical Noire (2014) which include forms based on those of ancient European ceramics. Made from tulipwood and plywood – materials both used in construction and cabinet-making – Brewster has created a collection of no-frills vessels that are both robust and geometric. Purposefully crafted to echo the aesthetics of Sub-Saharan Africa, Tropical Noire is marked by both European and African art-history.
I think too often that we forget the blatant voyeurism and fetishism that is associated with criticism. If the critic is a he, then he is also a city dweller who is wealthy, white and able-bodied. In the Shape of Things, Brewster has curated a room that both critiques and denies this grossly inquisitive eye, whilst crafting a place for her multi-faceted objects to breathe and thrive.
Ironically with this in mind, her Crown: Three, Four and Five Prong Combs (2023), have been locked away beyond the gaze of a glass cabinet, in a similar way to artefacts in a museum. Within this show, each box has been crafted to mimic the expressions that bounce amongst Brewster’s work, with the bubbling cobalt cabinets appearing to leap from the paintings hung behind them. We are purposefully drawn towards these facilitators of display, as we are taught to understand how these impact our appreciation of, and experience with, the objects that are placed inside. So often whether hung on a wall, spotlighted on a plinth, or hidden away in a glass cabinet – these modes of curation silently tell us if something is “art” or “object” and as Brewster’s work intends to show, this more often than not is dependent on the geographical dichotomy between Europe vs Other.
Yet amongst this institutional critique, is a tenderness that forms the beating heart of Brewster’s work. In Inner Voice (2023) the paint quivers and swells, to echo not just the artist’s hand, but in extension, her heartbeat. Her gesticulative paintings are reminders that objects can just be, without having meaning ascribed to them. Brewster’s work therefore need not be labelled “craft” or “art”, “high” or “low”, but are instead windows into the life of the artist herself, and the experience, influences and interests that have led to her pieces’ inception.
The critic will so often hyper-focus on a person’s history to the point of sensationalism, or in reverse will disregard these realities altogether. In The Shape of Things this power has been stripped away, presenting a body of work whose value has been entirely left to the eyes of the people. A breathtaking show. See it in its last few weeks while you can.
The Shape of Things is on at NOW Gallery until 24th September.
Don’t miss Simone Brewster in conversation at NOW Gallery and Sea Containers London on Thursday 19th September.