In September 2014, at a private view at contemporary art gallery The International 3, a group of art viewers gathered around a rug. Curator and gallery proprietor Laurence, bottled beer in one hand, novelty foam finger on the other, divulged its history.
We were looking at Orranorco, a work created by newly acquired artist Joe Fletcher Orr for his first solo exhibition Under the Thumb. Joe’s father claimed he could design a better rug than any sold from the family’s stall at the market. Joe saw art in the claim. So did the gallery, and commissioned its fabrication at a textile manufacturer in India.
The resulting work dealt with themes of labour, the quotidian, family. That time-old father-and-son bond. Except, we weren’t looking at that rug at the private view. The article hadn’t been shipped in time for the exhibition opening. In its place was a substitute rug from his father’s stall, a standard cream loop pile affair, ‘floating’ on crates from the market, imitating the magic carpet it was not.
Aren’t you worried that the artist is actually a Del Boy type character, and he’s fobbed you off with a much cheaper rug? I asked Laurence.
No, he replied, Joe’s a very sincere boy.
It was difficult, given the rest of the work in Under the Thumb and the artist’s oeuvre to that date, not to view Orranorco as a prank.
The gallery hadn’t commissioned an artwork as such; they had commissioned the story behind it. Did it make any difference to the rug story what the rug actually looked like? Did it even matter if the story was true?
Not to the curator, it seemed. All he needed was some kind of visual prompt in order to tell it. Indeed, perhaps he got a bargain – the rug story and the story of how the rug wasn’t ready in time for the exhibition. 2 for the price of 1.*
Orr’s current International 3 exhibition, Mummy’s Boy, is a noticeably different kind of show. Gone are the one-liners on artifice and failure. The artist’s tried and tested method of parental collaboration, however, remains.
A selection of house plants, pots crudely but endearingly crafted by the artist and his mother Lynda at a local ceramics workshop, are displayed on tall MDF plinths. The gallery walls have been painted in a colour, Strawberry Surprise, that she picked out from B&Q. Along one of them is a series of photographs of the house fruit bowl, fruit arranged by mum, photographs taken by a professional photography studio.
Given the artist’s past work, and its tendency towards self-deprecating humour, how are we to approach Mummy’s Boy?
One possibility is that we forget the conceptual pranks of the past and take it in earnest. A body of work by ‘a very sincere boy’, a loving tribute to his mother and her underappreciated artistic abilities.
In the accompanying text commissioned by the gallery, Oliver Basciano (ArtReview) surmises that Orr “might have met with the approval of the late American writer David Foster Wallace and his 1993 call for an emergence of an ‘anti-rebel’… ‘artists willing to risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness’.”
Perhaps Orr was simply moved by the arrangement of the fruit in his mother’s bowl (the sensuous interplay between the bananas, the casual dangle of the grapes). Or perhaps it is part of a continued enquiry into definitions of art and taste.
In considering where to place each item of fruit, the artist’s mother makes the same decisions a painter might: balancing colour and form, pursuing visual harmony. Does this make his mother’s fruit bowls ‘art’?** Can the arrangement of a still life carry as much artistic value as the painting itself? Does Orr’s mother’s fruit bowl carry as much ‘worth’ as the photographs of them?
* The real Orranorco rug did eventually arrive. It now resides in storage as part of the Arts Council Collection, occasionally removed for cultural appreciation and hovering.
** Anyone of a modernist form-follows-function mind-set, take note: “Avoid arranging fruit together in a fruit bowl: it may look great but some of the fruits will ripen quicker than others, and there’s always something fluffy in the bottom you’ll miss. The best place for fruit is in a paper bag in a draft-free spot.” ‘The art of fruit bowl maintenance’, Sonya Kidney, 2013, theguardian.co.uk
Daniel McMillan is an artist and writer based in Manchester.
Image courtesy The International 3 and Simon Pantling.
Joe Fletcher Orr – Mummy’s Boy, The International 3, Salford.
23 March – 29 April 2016.