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A SHORT HISTORY OF ‘THE GALLERY’

JOHN A. WALKER (COPYRIGHT 2009)
Private art galleries considered as components of the production/consumption cycle of art commodities are equivalent to the retail outlets which serve general commodity production. Because anyone can pay a casual visit to a private gallery to view the work on display without any charge being made, the illusion is fostered that private galleries are altruistic enterprises providing a public service, whereas their function is to sell artworks either to public museums or to private collectors. Viewing spaces for art run by full-time dealers and speculators in art emerged in the nineteenth century as a consequence of the increasing alienation of artist from their patrons and their public: works produced on spec rather than bespoke needed dealers to advertise and market them. In the Autumn of 1972, a maverick appeared amongst the private galleries in London. Impudently it called itself The Gallery (following the precedent of Andy Warhol's studio The Factory), as if it was the only one, or the only one that mattered. The Gallery: London, first floor, 65a Lisson Street was a space opened by Nicholas Wegner and some of his friends, most of whom were ex-students of the Slade School of Art, in a run-down enclave of the metropolis situated between Marylebone Road, Lisson Grove and the Edgware Road. This frowsy but charming area contains a street market, second-hand bookshops and junk shops, a school, and just around the corner from The Gallery, the showplace of British and American avant-garde art, the Lisson Gallery, Bell Street run by Nicholas Logsdail.

Ambitious, newly qualified graduates in fine art are confronted by the problem of breaking into the magic circle of the London artworld, in particular, obtaining that crucial first one-man or one-woman show in one of the small number of galleries that really count (in terms of international prestige). After a certain quota of rejections most young artists resign themselves to a lifetime of obscurity, but Wegner & Co found an alternative solution: they opened a gallery themselves. The subsequent history of this independent space can be divided into four phases. In phase one a series of satirical shows were mounted guying the luminaries of the avant-garde: works by the Walsall Art-Language group, the land artist Robert Lang, and the German theoretical artist Lothar Reiss were exhibited. The absurd habit of chaining conceptual art texts to tables to prevent theft provoked a hilarious piece: a book attached to a table by means of a large stake driven through its centre so that it could not even be opened! These shows succeeded one another with great rapidity (some were up for only a few days); an innovation which drew attention to the uniformity of most art gallery scheduling (the pattern of one show per month). What these exhibitions also illustrated was the ease with which the look - graphic style and display mannerisms - of the late sixties art could be duplicated and its closeness to fatuity. In a Richard Long sculpture, for example, the dividing line between profundity and bathos is extremely thin. Art is a serious business, but then again its not that serious: ‘was it only the solemnity of the artists, dealers and critics, and the severe, puritanical presentation of the work which prevented the audience from responding with fits of giggles?’... Wegner and Co seemed to be asking.

The Gallery's in-joke activities reached a climax in the Summer show mounted by the ICA in 1973. Wegner was commissioned to present the work of twelve artists who the ICA falsely believed were part of The Gallery's stable of conceptual artists. I recall when I visited this exhibition I was escorted round by a young woman, employed by the ICA as a hostess, who was totally unaware of the prank being played on that institution. A memorable work in that show was a wooden tea chest with a slot cut in the top into which members of the public were invited to drop money while wishing a work of art! The takings amounted to thirty pence and one parking ticket. As a critical weapon ridicule was effective for only a short period and in October 1973 phase two of The Gallery was instituted: a more serious approach involving a collaboration between Wegner and Vaughan Grylls (a pun sculptor noted for his dry humour and irreverent attitudes). At this point photography was adopted as The Gallery's primary medium of expression because it enabled source material to be transformed in various ways: alterations of scale - including enlargement to mural size; alterations of colour or tone; mass replication of images: marriages of images and printed texts; or photographs and drawings. The production of panels of phototext material enabled the directors to develop free-standing display units which had the potential of nationwide distribution (the directors argued that since art galleries are in the display business, why not manufacture displays?). Most art galleries are channels through which art produced elsewhere - in the artists' studios or workshops - passes; in these instances, the role of the gallery director is that of a promoter or entrepreneur. In contrast, the directors of The Gallery were artists and

the space was a point of production of artworks: in fact it was a cross between a studio and a gallery. Furthermore, the potential to replicate display units and photomurals in editions gave The Gallery something of the character of a publishing house. Following the arrival of Grylls, The Gallery acquired a more aggressive public image and its impersonation of an avant-garde gallery was tightened-up by a close attention to detail. From then onwards visitors to shows could never shake off a sense of disquiet because the real face of the enterprise was hidden behind a mask which fitted it exactly; one suspects that even the directors of The Gallery were victims of the ambiguity at the core of their venture. One feature which contributed to the sense of unease was the disjunction between the straight, dead-pan form of presentation of material and the piquant nature of that material; for example, photo-text displays on DRUG ABUSE IN MAINE and BUNGALOWS.

Invitation card for the Bungalow show. Copyright N. Wegner. Even when social topics of greater significance, such as flooding in Egypt, coal mines, and Belfast [a city of conflict because of ‘the troubles’], were treated, a contrast was established between hot subjects and cool presentation. After his trip to Belfast to take a series of snapshots, Grylls selected six images for display on the basis that they were the least interesting; Grylls believed that although individually these images were dull, together they would make an interesting show. In this instance, a contrast was implied between the mass media's treatment of Belfast (sensational reports) and The Gallery's (off hand, low key, everyday reality). Such

shows commented indirectly on the mass media's capacity to process, package and standardize all items of news whether emotionally harrowing or trivial (this review, this magazine, are open to the same criticism). Grylls and Wegner seemed to be saying that if one looks beyond the screaming headlines and pictures of sex and violence, what is really shocking about the mass media is their capacity to reduce everything to the same value. Furthermore, the shows demonstrated that these strictures were also applicable to the artistic manipulation of material: the expressive potential of pictorial codes is such that an artist can reduce an audience to tears without that artist being moved at all. By adopting a puritanical policy of non-involvement, Grylls and Wegner exposed the hypocrisy underlying the concern of the mass media and many artists towards sensational and controversial issues. But to me their detachment seemed inhuman: to make their point required an intolerable degree of alienation from the world. Just because the ability to tell lies is an inherent characteristic of all languages and sign systems, does not remove the moral obligation to use languages to tell the truth. In the case of The Gallery, the strategies adopted were so oblique and indirect that ambiguity and ambivalence pre-dominated. For whom and for what was their art for? These were the central questions left in the air. When placed on the spot by such questions artists often reply in justification of their actions .. . it was an artwork! or I was trying to solve an art problem; in other words art is cited as the ultimate escape clause, as if it were a value outside of social relations. Establishing The Gallery's identity was primarily a question of constructing, through the design of announcement cards and press releases, and the

standardization of graphics, a crisp, bold house style or corporate image to match that of leading European and American galleries. Dazzled by the glamour of New York art scene, the directors of The Gallery sought to emulate American practice but in doing so they disregarded the feeble economic foundation of the art business in Britain as compared to that of the United States (that is, the scarcity of collectors of contemporary art in Britain); consequently, defeat was incorporated into the venture from the outset. A possible alternative to a reliance on private collectors as a source of income is the forging of links with industry. And at one stage The Gallery produced two displays utilizing publicity material supplied by the firms Hasselblad and Stoll; however, big business did not in the end provide a viable means of support. Perhaps the most polemical work of the phase two period was CONTEMPORARY ART a jumbo photo-mural consisting of pictorial quotations from the oeuvres of eight internationally known artists who collectively represented a cross section of contemporary art. This photo-mural was a piece of sheer effrontery and caused an immediate reaction. Mario Merz [an Italian artist] and Jack Wendler [a London art dealer] arrived at the opening with a camera to document the atrocity; a violent argument then ensued in which Wendler threatened legal action, lost his temper and stormed out.

N. Wegner and V. Grylls, Contemporary Art, (June-July 1974) photo-mural. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Throughout the various changes which The Gallery underwent an interest in display and presentation remained a constant. All artworks have frames or edges the point at which they are differentiated from the non-art environment surrounding them - but with the disappearance of the literal, physical picture frames and the sculpture plinths associated with Modernist and Minimalist art of the sixties, the art gallery as a framing device took on greater significance: it became the ground against which the figure of the art was perceived. Outside the art gallery advanced works tended to merge into the environment: laypersons stumbling across examples of Art Povera - such as piles of sand - outside the gallery context were unable to distinguish them from raw nature or from examples of non-art, man-

made debris. The Gallery's exhibitions foregrounded this isolating, focusing characteristic of the modern gallery: often shows consisted of single photo-mural panels. Considered individually these shows seemed ridiculously thin and claustrophobic, but since each show was, in effect, a single work by an artist or artists (the gallery director and collaborators) any judgement of the enterprise had to be made on the basis of the total programme of exhibitions. In contrast, each show put on by conventional art galleries tends to be self-sufficient with little relation to preceding or succeeding shows; though it is true that the taste of the gallery director can be discerned if a long enough sequence of exhibitions is considered. While the bare white interiors typical of modern art galleries enable visitors to concentrate on the exhibits without any distractions, it is a characteristic which has provoked adverse criticism on the grounds that the artworks are invested with a false autonomy, that they are presented in a limbo outside of any social, cultural or national context which would give them meaning. As John Stezaker points out, in an unpublished paper, art galleries match only airports in their suppression of any cultural differentia. Visiting the shows at The Gallery it seemed to me that the artworks on display were stifled by an antiseptic environment in which they appeared. Phase three of The Gallery - roughly the period - November 1974 to December 1975 - consisted of a sequence of shows involving collaborations between the directors and a number of British artists with established reputations, that is, John Latham, Stephen Willats, Rita Donagh and Gerald Newman. These shows were in

the nature of co-productions and each one represented unique difficulties. The clash of personalities and the collision between The Gallery's mode of production and that of the individual artist was often fruitful but also created tensions and unresolved problems. As a result the hassles surrounding the display unit based on a drawing by Rita Donagh, the partnership between Wegner and Grylls was dissolved and after the show closed the work became homeless in that none of the parties concerned wanted to take responsibility for it.

John Latham, Offer for Sale, (November- December 1974), display designed by N. Wegner. In January 1976, The Gallery also showed Latham’s roller painting THE. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In recounting the history of The Gallery I cannot claim complete impartiality because I played a minor role in that history: by reviewing two exhibitions and mounting a third: ART DIAGRAMS a slide-tape presentation which I showed at The Gallery in January 1975 was a work of art history/criticism. The use of a tape recording synchronized to a slide projector demonstrated the possibility of

Invitation card for Art Diagrams, 1975. Design by John A Walker and N. Wegner. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------automating one-off events such as lectures and demonstrated that art criticism is amenable to display in a gallery context. This work did not involve collaboration with The Gallery's directors since it was readymade. The minimal costs of the show were shared equally by both parties and no further commercial considerations were involved since no product was offered for sale. [Pierre Rouve wrote a favourable review and as a result Nicholas Serota, then curator of MOMA, Oxford, viewed the

work at my home after the show had closed.] One of the most important shows, as far as I am concerned, was Jonathan Miles' GLOBAL ROUTE a work consisting of two photo-text panels which illustrated, by means of a montage of images clipped from American magazines, the way in which the business and military interests of the developed Western nations plan and organise in their struggle for global domination of trade and power, and the results of

Jonathan Miles, Global Routes, (April-May 1976). Two units of photomontages

designed with N. Wegner. Copyright reserved CV/VAR 2001. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------this exploitation in the countries of the Third world. The work also contrasted the ideological relations represented in the images with the actual political relations produced by the purported natural cycle of the capitalist system. Clearly many visitors to The Gallery would oppose the political line of Miles' photomontage but what impressed me was the fact that the work had a content with which one could take issue, that the work concerned events taking place in the world instead of concerning itself exclusively with formal relations taking place inside the frame. It was in this work too that the tension between cool representation and hot subject matter was at its greatest: the politically unconscious standard art ideology of Wegner was confronted by the left, radical political consciousness of Miles. What made a collaboration possible at all was, I believe, the fact that both Miles and Wegner favour a low-key, matter-of-fact style of presentation of loaded material, that both eschew the sensational manipulation of visual devices typical of the advertising industry. The GLOBAL ROUTE exhibit also highlighted the limitations of art galleries as venues for art with a political statement: the audience that can be reached via a gallery is so small and so narrow in its composition. Although the existence of The Gallery constituted a noise in the London gallery system, a slight interference with the monthly routine of shows and reviews, the impact of its critique was limited by a number of factors. Firstly, the concept of an on-going, long term critique of the art gallery system was not fully formulated, indeed it was not even a primary objective of Wegner and his associates (this was a

sign of an underdeveloped political consciousness); the critique was in fact a byproduct of their activities. Secondly, an art gallery as a form of communication has certain inherent limitations - which were compounded by a lack of financial resources - for example, the restricted number of people that can be informed of shows via a mailing list, the number of people that can be accommodated at one time in a small gallery space. Thirdly, the pre-occupation with art problems rather than the more general problems of society at large prevented The Gallery from attracting an audience external to the artworld; it did not, for instance, make any appeal to those who resided in its immediate vicinity. In the last three shows - phase four - Wegner's dual role as director and artist, and the dual role of the space as gallery and studio, were finally merged: he alone was responsible for the single photo-mural panels which made up the shows. CONTRACT WORK was a self-reference piece in which he took a reflective look back at the procedures involved in mounting exhibitions while in BACK ISSUES and TV GUIDE he exploited the camera's ability to record multiple exposures to freeze a segment of the stream of visual noise which constitutes the press and television. Wegner's aim was to stop the endless flow of information in its tracks so that the viewer could contemplate it and have the time to make a critical response (a gesture reminiscent of King Canute). It was also his intention to demonstrate that TV seen through the refracting glass of art was more interesting than TV in its raw state but the final irony here is that when television, the most powerful mass media at present, beams a surfeit of moving images into the home every day of the year very few people are going to bother to make the journey to

an art gallery in order to see a display consisting of one static image. The Gallery's climatic exhibit revealed with exemplary clarity the condition of works of fine art in the age of mass media. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------BIBLIOGRAPHY R. Cork, COOK'S NOT SO GRAND TOUR, Evening Standard, July 19 1973, p. 30. R. Miller, THREE SORTS OF GALLERY, THREE SORTS OF ART, Time Out, September 21-27 1973, p. 29. J. A. Walker, DRUG ABUSE IN MAINE, Studio Intemational, 187 (965) April 1974, pp. 12-13 (review section), J. A. Walker, ‘CONTEMPORARY ART’, Flash Art, (48/49) October/ November 1974, p. 37. C. Tisdall, THE GALLERY: JOHN LATHAM, The Guardian, December 5, 1974, p. 10. R. Brooks, JOHN LATHAM, Studio International, 189 (973) January/February 1975, p. 16 (review section). P. Rouve, TO SEE, TO THINK, Arts Review, 27 (3) February 7 1975, p. 67. C. Tisdall, MIXED SHOWS, The Guardian, March 25 1975, p. 10. C. Lampert, RITA DONAGH , Studio International, 189 (975) May/June 1975, pp. 240-241. A. Seymour, GERALD NEWMAN, Studio International, 190 (976) July/August 1975, p. 83.

R. Cork, NICE TO META you! Evening Standard, October 16 1975, p. 22. C. Tisdall, FLAG ROLE, The Guardian, February 10 1976, p. 10.

NB see also Nicolas Wegner and Neal Brown, ‘The Gallery’, AND nos 15/16 1988, pp. 41-46. N. Wegner, Depart from Zero: The Development of The Gallery, 19731978, (London: The Gallery Trust publications, 1987).

Nicholas Wegner’s website http://www.thecentreofattention.org/dgthegallery.html

Vaughan Grylls website http://www.quick-hosts.com/~grylls/index.html --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This is a revised version of an article published in the magazine AND nos 15/16 1988, pp. 47-49. John A. Walker is a painter and art historian. He is the author the book Art in the Age of Mass Media, 3rd edn (London & Sterling VA: Pluto Press, 2001) and John Latham - the Incidental Person - His Art and Ideas, (London: Middlesex University Press, 1995). He is also an editorial advisor for the website: "http://www.artdesigncafe.com">www.artdesigncafe.com</a>

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