A Magnitude in Albion: Andrew Lacon at OUTPOST by Daniel Campbell Blight
Andrew Lacon’s work studies social class; that relentless - but of course not exclusively - English concern. Originally from Dudley and a working class family, the artist has found himself studying from within, whilst seemingly railing against, a series of now predominantly middle class art schools during the last six years. First at the University of Plymouth, then at the Royal College of Art, Lacon has received the ideal training in photography: being taught by such influential characters as Jem Southam and Olivier Richon. His practice draws from personal experiences, a kind of critical reflection on his own inquisitiveness and seeming discomfort with the education he has received, and the places it has led him to - South Kensington for example, where the RCA is, for now, situated. The result of Lacon’s important enquiry is a body of work that asks the question: How can I operate within a discourse that is fundamentally bourgeois (the majority of the art world, at least as it appears to us), whilst retaining my identity and working class upbringing? Or to put the question in another form: In precisely what way does what I now produce as an artist, communicate itself with where I am from; my sense of place; my heritage; my class – and as the exhibition’s title alludes to, my nationality?
With a great sense of engagement, Lacon seems to be deciphering how he can turn his newly acquired status as an artist through elite education, back in on itself in order to criticise the very process of producing art objects that attempt to catechize what it is to be from a particular class, or a particular place. In this sense, Lacon’s work appears to us with two identities: on the one hand he asks a question about what constitutes his social identity, whilst also instructing us on the impossibility of answering such a question. The artist uses the tools he has acquired at art school to engage with his own social position, leading to the central and important paradox of his work: the failure of the language of art school on its own terms, along with the failure of the artist to define his own fleeting identity. This failure is the success of the work; the way in which it reveals the profound separation between language as it attempts to define a place in society, and that place’s continually changing nature. The exhibition’s title alludes to this perfectly: A Magnitude in Albion – after all, what is it to be English really? On whatever terms we ask the question, it is impossible to answer because England is a place of such huge social and cultural difference and, for better, it is this seemingly unquantifiable diversity that makes it precisely what it is today.
Perhaps Lacon can be read as a kind of photographic version of George Shaw (the painter recently nominated for the 2011 Turner Prize); one that references elements of both social realism combined with photography’s recent medium-specific concerns with it’s own identity (photography on the terms of painting or sculpture, for example). Lacon’s work confronts the sentimentality of realist depiction, by both referencing it and taking steps beyond its simple representation. His interest in sculpture can be seen in a number of the exhibition’s works, as well as a kind of twisted revealing of what we attempt to call representation. For example, in his work Fuck Off (2011), we see a view, moving from left to right, of the most generic brick suburban end-terrace; the smallest patch of grass one could call a garden complete with “no tipping” sign; and a pebble-dashed row of garages built-up a concrete incline that moves from foreground to horizon in a blue, zigzagging homage to Lee Miller’s Impasse aux deux anges (Paris, 1930). This is a scene imbued with references. It is the artist finding elements of art history in the pictures he makes; Lacon utilises the visual language of representation at the point where its meaning dissolves. The more you stare at Fuck Off, the more you realise its heavy, ironic burden of meanings and reference points. Lacon injects a kind of humour into the work that functions to both reference and contradict the “philosophical language” of the art world (as George Shaw puts it in his Tate interview). Fuck off is the most un-intellectual title a picture could have, but also a title that paradoxically invites the recipient of the verbal attack to do everything but fuck off. The insult becomes a disguised invitation to take a prolonged look at an image that is far more complicated than one might initially assume. Here, the statement ‘fuck off’ actually says, ‘look at me, I am right here; seemingly with an identity; a language and a means of representation’.
Andrew Lacon successfully grapples with an immensely complicated set of ideas and questions here. The work is well crafted, well thought-out and its direct and unafraid engagement with “Englishness”, class and social mobility should be commended. Over time, the work could form a coherent and important political critique, but for now it remains an interesting and intelligent excursion into the rhetoric of much of the art world and the complicated nature of English national identity in the face of an increasingly polarised society. The exhibition is hung with great coherence in a small space, and the gallery itself represents one of the many, not often enough discussed places for viewing contemporary art in England. With all the concentration being on exhibitions that take place in major cities, one has a tendency to forget that there are publically funded galleries presenting truly engaging exhibitions that are fully deserving of their funding. Norwich OUTPOST is one of them.
Daniel Campbell Blight is a writer and academic based in London. www.danielcampbellblight.com