Sunday, 1 February 2009

Brad Downey – “An Honest Thief”

Presented by Stolen Space
Old Truman Brewery, London
29 Jan – 8 Feb 2009

Ever been jealous of someone’s lateral vision, been envious of the gift of conceiving and executing simple, subverted variations to the street scenery around us? If you’re an ordinary guy and have come across Brad Downey’s street art – then the answer is probably yes and yes again.

However, have you ever been let down by your heroes or disappointed by the mediocre achievement of a show hyped up by your own expectation that the street work is somehow going to transpose to a white box gallery space? If you go to Brad Downey’s first solo UK show in Stolen Space, London, then again you may find yourself ticking yes several times.

Brad Downey fine reputation is due mainly to his powerful and bizarre street installations. Downey takes the power of the streets, quadruples the source and hurls it back at the authorities who provide the arena within which he works. There isn’t a road marking, street sign or rotating object (!) which is safe when Downey’s in the mood for an audacious installation.

To stage this show, Stolen Space has moved about 20 yards down the Truman Old Brewery to a venue about, and don’t get too precious about the multiple, say 4 times the size of their own permanent gallery space. Downey has installed two prominent features, both at heart are disappointingly familiar. Along two sides of the room are four screens showing looped clips of Downey’s trademark street installations.

The clip of the rotating advertisement hoarding which winds streams of coloured tape off spools on nearby improvised spindles illustrates the his ability to create something simple yet so unexpected as to be initially baffling to the observer, forcing the passer-by to deal with multiple confusions such as was this part of the designed purpose, if not why has someone done this, can you walk past it safely, what will happen at the end and so on. A replay of the tube station turnstile installation would have been even more impressive. The three other looped films (Scaffolding love heart, jumper coinciding with building flashing lights and paving stone domino tumbling) were all played at Downey’s talk as part of Tate Modern’s 2008 Urban Art programme.

The second major installation was the street sign sputnik cluster, an idea executed and shown previously. In this case, it was actually awkward to view that piece in a way that might do it justice as every sightline seem to be compromised by either pillars or an un-sypathetic background.

Downey’s street sign work strongly echoes the efforts of UK artist Michael Pinsky, or is it the other way round – I’m not sure but I bet Pinsky gets a damn sight more public funding than Downey.

The limited number of gallery works were sparsely scattered around the periphery of the room. In one corner, juxtaposed against a small screen showing of a DVD of “actual police violence” were two sets of editioned deformed “night sticks”. A pair of seal like canoodling objects ask allegorical questions of love and romance in a world of state approved brutality whilst the single stick hanging flaccidly over the edge of its plinth drew a parallel with the big car-small dick use of macho objects as symbols of virility and power.

Night Dick On Limp/Night Dick In Love (behind)

Obviously the pieces look very well made but the most thought was why should the word truncheon be so sensitive that in the US it needs to go in disguise as “night stick”.

A vinyl copy of the Rolling Stones double Album Beggars Banquet, the one with the graffiti’d loo on the cover, had “Downey Was Not Here” added over the picture in white paint. The artist has deliberately not integrated the added graffiti into the picture which actually is stating the bleeding obvious as the album was released long before he was born, but the idea plays with Downey’s own “Brad Downey Was Here” tagging campaign, which on the street captures the essence of graffiti at every level.

A 20cm circular tapestry weave feature graffiti style motifs, with the square composition curiously off-centre and partially obscured by the tapestry frame. Evidently tapestry embroidery is becoming this year’s painting on perspex which last year was that year’s found metal (see also: DScreet).

V Fresh

Other items include a trio of animal images superimposed on another animal’s skin a continuation of a familiar series and a child crossing sign in which the figures are escaping from the frame.

Animals That Crossed
And that really is about it, other than a set of framed signed photos of selected street installations from the Downey cv, photos of which can be readily found on the internet.

The flaw with the show is that Downey’s work is best done on the streets and best appreciated on the streets, that’s what street subversion is about. The show is a reasonable Downey primer for Vyner St and Cork St types, if any retain any curiosity about urban art. Maybe the sense that an artist has passed off a show which has required almost no stretching of his undoubted talent and shameless exploitation, indeed repetition of previous pieces will dissipate over time.

PS: no link to a flickr set of other pictures from the show, that’s yer lot. I’ve never photographed a Downey on the street other than his tag, so let me recomend that you would be far off better visiting his site to see a comprehensive history of some stunning street installations.

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