FEAST OF FOOLS
A BROOKS ART, London
6 June – 20 July 2013
Reviewed by: Gillian Mciver for a-n
Feast of Fools is an exhibition of print-based works by the artist known as DRB. DRB being a pseudonym and an acronym for “Dirty Rotten Bleeder.” As soon as you understand this, you know that you are in the hands of an intriguing and somewhat mysterious artistic personage.
Feast of Fools is located in Hoxton’s A Brooks Gallery, a converted florist that still bears many of the hallmarks of a working shop, in particular the windows and the magnificent signage. Immediately, it is obvious how appropriate the show is to the venue, and vice-versa. Most of the exhibits take the form of screen-printed matchboxes. The matchboxes are arrayed on the walls and piled in the gallery like shop wares, each one printed with a different image, and each image containing a slogan or a symbol that operates as a slogan. The effect overall is fun, witty, and political.
Printmaking is a funny art form, at least to me. To my uninformed eye there are hierarchies in printmaking. You’ve got your high-end prints, the etchings and the drypoints, the aqua tints and the engravings. Tough to do; detailed stuff. It seems to me that often these prints are judged due to their quality of execution, and collectors assess them with almost forensic scrutiny. This is not my approach, I should add; I just buy the prints that I like based on what I see. But it’s a fact that often this kind of fine art printmaking ends up producing stuff that’s a bit twee.
And then you have screen printing. This is the low end of printing, the messy end. The world of the tee shirt and the poster. With screen you can be spontaneous. It’s cheap and cheerful and so it’s possible to get really interesting results and then refine them until you get what you want. It’s a fascinating method of working and in the right hands it yields fantastic results. DRB’s screen prints are an example of “the right hands” for this medium.
I’m reminded here of the great Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) who is one of the world’s great print artists, right up there with Hogarth. Posada’s brilliant satirical and politically acute “calaveras” – or skeletons satirised many issues of the day, in particular the bourgeois dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. The British Museum had a terrific exhibition of Posada that also showed his influence of the muralists, Orozco, Rivera and Siquieros.
DRB’s matchbox prints remind me so much of Posada’s calaveras, because they are no less fun and no less iconic to Britain than the calaveras are to Mexico.
Even the word “Matchbox” conjures up a jumble of impressions. What is a match but an incendiary device? It’s the trigger that lights the bomb, the Molotov. Or, dropped in the street, it catches random gas leak and the pavement explodes. But Matchbox is also a toy. Who hasn’t seen or played with Matchbox cars? Unfortunately the don’t come in matchboxes any more, but they are still going strong. Matchbox cars take up back to uncomplicated childhood. Yet it doesn’t end there.
Standing in the Hoxton gallery I’m also reminded of the significance of matches themselves in this very territory of East London. I’m thinking of the match strike at Bryant and May, in nearby Bow, just east of here. The factory stood accused of horrible exploitation of their female work force. Activist Annie Besant led the women to strike and garnered support from the wider public and luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw. The Match Girl’s strike is part of the essential history of east London.
The east end has always been a hotbed of radical politics, a place of immigration, a place that is in constant flux and constant state of blending things together. The exhibition reminds me of all that, but at the same time I wonder what the show would feel like in a static kind of place, like Wimbledon or Chelsea? The resonances might be different. The slogans more shocking. Either way, the work will always have an effect. I should say that the show also includes DRB’s “First Day Covers” issues of stamps, which are no less resonant.
Bringing together the archaic (the matchbox form itself) and the nostalgic, with the witty yet direct political perspectives on everything from the London riots to the Arab spring, Feast of Fools unites politics and the everyday into an exhibition where the whole is imbued with meaning at once inspiring and rallying.
That is the kind of show Feast of Fools is. DRB’s work immediately captures you, delights you, intrigues you, and then takes you on a journey – into history, into memory, into politics and social awareness. Deceptively simple, it packs a punch way above its weight.