Street Semiotics

17 Feb — 25 Mar 2017 at Charlie Smith Gallery in London, United Kingdom

Kate Lyddon, Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk (Sour), 2017. Courtesy of Charlie Smith London
Kate Lyddon, Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk (Sour), 2017. Courtesy of Charlie Smith London
18 FEB 2017

Charlie Smith London introduces the first in a trilogy of interconnected exhibitions. The first includes artists who draw on the city to inform their work. The second – ‘The Turning World’ - will explore the relationship between historical and contemporary landscape painting, and its relevance. The third exhibition – ‘Interiority’ – will investigate interiors and specifically their psychological resonance. During the first exhibition, David Hancock, Director of PAPER in Manchester, will curate a dialogic show of work on paper called ‘Semiotic Guerrilla Warfare part IV’ in the back room, consisting of over thirty artists.

Street Semiotics includes British, German and American artists working in painting, video and sculptural installation who engage with the city environment, from street culture to its physicality to its populous.

Florian Heinke is known for his paintings that alternate between political polemics and transcendental beauty. Combining text and image only in black acrylic on unprimed canvas, Heinke investigates contemporary and modern politics; popular culture; celebrity; glamour beauty and decay. He is known for aggressive statements and uncompromising subject matter that is underpinned by the poetic and contemplative. The use of text in both German and English; an absorption of advertising techniques; and a clash of imagery derived from various sources coalesce to reference high, low and mass culture.

Sam Jackson makes instinctively guttural, intimate portraits. His subjects are often covered with text that recalls street sub-culture in the form of rough, homemade tattoos and graffiti. The raw urgency and do-it-yourself attitudes imbedded within the punk and skinhead movements transfer onto Jackson’s work in combination with an embracing of beauty and the historical. The text represents a cognitive statement and a definitive point of reference while the subjects themselves project a sense of contemplative melancholy.

Kate Lyddon is motivated by her immediate environment; human behaviour and interaction; the human form; clothing; the surreality of existence; and the absurd. Her sculptural installation evolves intuitively through formal experimentation, resulting in figure and object combinations that are simultaneously familiar and otherworldly. Dressed in streetwear and made from everyday materials including foam, polystyrene and handmade ceramic elements, whilst also referring to ancient mythologies and fairy tales, Lyddon’s displaced, disrupted, disfigured subjects avoid definition and suggest rather a slippage between disparate eras, locations and narratives.

Hugh Mendes makes trompe l’oeil paintings that operate simultaneously as portrait and still-life. Initially inspired by a piece of fluttering newspaper that blew against his foot, Mendes went onto relentlessly make paintings after newspaper obituaries and political articles, often about the war on terror. ‘G20 Killing’ recalls the unlawful killing of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson by a police officer during the G20 protests of 2009. Mendes reminds us that the city streets bear witness to continuous and multiple events on a daily basis, from the inconsequential to the fundamental.

Alex Gene Morrison’s images of skulls, forests, monsters, heads and totemic abstract forms call to mind the primitive and tribal and suggest a kind of street anthropology. Signifiers of fire and internal or electrical energy convey thoughts of destruction, transformation and re-animation via elemental forces. His obsessions with sub-cultural visual genres including horror and sci-fi movies; video games; streetwear design; and alternative music, combine to inform his unique worldview that is communicated using mixed media painting, collage and video animation.

Mitra Saboury’s work investigates the impact of the built environment on the human body. Using performance, video and installation, Saboury attempts to reclaim the city by interacting with its cracks, crevices, potholes and other negative spaces. She confronts and overcomes the physical restriction and confinement of architectural perimeters by employing her body in unexpected ways. There is a peculiar intimacy to Saboury’s repetitive actions which suggests a fetishization of the moribund, imperfect and commonplace.

Hendrik Zimmer works in the traditions of collage and décollage in combination with mixed painting and printing techniques. His complex surfaces directly reference those of the urban environment, including collage elements derived from posters that Zimmer has ripped from street hoardings. There is an immediate and multifaceted aspect to his work that echoes the frenetic nature of experiencing the city environment. Weathered and textured surfaces are analogous to the passing of time that can be measured in traces and patterns on walls and doors, recording the acting out of lives in the city, and angular, geometric patterns tell us that this is not a place of nature, but of the man made.

‘Semiotic Guerrilla Warfare’ is an ongoing collaboration between Charlie Smith London and Paper, presented previously at PAPER, Manchester and Dean Clough, Halifax. The artists assembled create artwork from any materials that come to hand, creating a theoretical collage of themes: linguistics, text, the city, psychogeography, found images, appropriation, underground culture, cults and rituals. Exploring popular culture in an attempt to de-value the art object and elevate everyday objects, ‘Semiotic Guerrilla Warfare’ presents found objects, mass-produced materials and lo-fi aesthetics to create a new visual language that comments upon the disposable nature of our culture and society.

The purchase of commodities can be seen to offer a sense of freedom and an escape. By manipulating and appropriating high street fashions, youth subcultures create a unique identity and transform themselves into street art. These concepts might be equally applied to artists, who use appropriation to subvert the meaning of the subjects that they transform. This creative use of commodities is exploited for the purpose of resistance, altering the meaning of a chosen mass produced object through the concept of bricolage.

This cultural appropriation or theft, and transformation of a commodity, highlights each of these artists as conspicuous consumers. Dick Hebdige, the subcultural theorist, quoting Umberto Eco, describes these subversive practices as “semiotic guerrilla warfare” - raiding the dominant culture for their trophies. These commodities are desired simply because they are status symbols of the privileged. They are essentially “empty fetishes”, desired and appropriated from those that are their antithesis. These artists employ their visual language to subvert the meaning of the very images they incorporate into their work.