Slightly belated review of Charles Avery at Pilar Corias written for and reproduced here by kind permission of NY Arts:
An erstwhile acquaintance of mine once asserted that if art doesn't concern itself with presenting something beautiful to the world then artists have fallen to the level of bad philosophers. Does this suggest then, I wondered, that an artist producing beautiful work is automatically a good philosopher? Or does it imply that the only real tool for the presentation of philosophical ideas is the written word?
Scotsman Charles Avery has embarked upon the creation of a universe parallel to our own. This universe presents itself to the viewer in the form of incredibly detailed mural-like panoramic drawings, a snap shot of some infinitely complex multi-faceted narrative. Objects also feature, anthropological in feel, almost as though they've morphed from the two dimensional plane into the three by way of some yet to be invented teleportation devise.
This ambitious project, The Islanders, was begun in 2005, since which time Avery has devoted his entire artistic output to its realisation. In the latest instalment at Pilar Corrias, we find the eponymous exhibition curated around the four by two and a half meter drawing Place de la Revolution, that details an urban centre over-run with cyclists, feral four-legged beasts and a melange of cameo's brought together into a whole. A haggard looking merchant pedals a curious bicycle made up of Duchamp's readymades, Fountain for a seat, Bottle Rack for transporting his wares and L.H.O.O.Q. nestled between the handle bars; elsewhere an urchin attempts to flog tourist tat to a well-heeled couple who are revolted by him; two men sit chatting happily balanced on unicycles, one is legless, his cycle adapted to be powered by hand; a half eaten sausage sits in a polystyrene box, discarded on the side of the road, along with a lone shoe, a lace up brogue. It is everywhere and nowhere; an eccentric but not impossible amalgam perhaps of Delhi, Bayswater and Futurama's New New York. Alongside the main drawings are various preliminary sketches, maps, maquettes and objects, such as a fully functioning table lamp brought back from The Island. Fiction and reality collide to confuse and delight.
What we're seeing at this elegant Rem Koolhaas designed gallery in Eastcastle Street is a tiny slice of a lifetime's project so vast that to get a meaningful sense of the whole the viewer needs must at least glance through the book originally published to coincide with Avery's show at Parasol Unit in 2008. The book tells and illustrates the story of The Island from the moment of its discovery by the diarising traveller known as Only McFew and of the exotic assortment of beings he encounters there. Avery is a highly accomplished draughtsman, as a wordsmith he is not quite so full in his glory, but it's a charming read nonetheless.
The Islanders has occasionally been described as implausible, far-fetched and that old chestnut, dystopian. But the truth is there's no fiction stranger than the truth. This 'real' world of ours that we take for granted is bizarre, extraordinary and entirely implausible on a minute by minute basis. We don't see that because we're too close to it. But create a subtle shift in our paradoxical, unresolvable, dichotomised equilibrium, wherein details are tweaked just enough that they appear unfamiliar, place it in a gallery setting thereby conferring instant critical distance, et voila, so little do we know ourselves we find the whole thing unimaginably outlandish. People addicted to gin soaked eggs we laugh! But we're all of us addicted to things far stranger than a gin soaked egg. In fact a gin soaked egg is not even so very far removed from Mr Bond's drink of drinks. As any marketeer will tell you, it's all in the presentation.
The truth is Charles Avery's project is not an excessive dystopian vision, not even so much an impressive feat of one man's Blake-esque imagination, more simply it's a mirror of the world we've created for ourselves. What's clever is he's nudged this mirror right under our noses almost without our noticing.
If self-knowledge is the most enlightened knowledge, as just about ever thinker, writer, artist and seer since time immemorial has at some point suggested, then I'd like to see a philosopher who can present us to ourselves more engagingly with a dictionary full of incomprehensible five syllable words than Avery can with a simple HB.
Place de la Revolution
Pilar Corrias, London (and Frieze Art Fair 13 to 16 October)
12 October to 16 December 2011