Any holistic criticism of Crown Building Studios’ (CBS) most recent show must stem from it falling foul to one or two common faults in contemporary art. The first relates to the works themselves assuming an attitude of ambiguity, a strategy of occlusion that serves to imbue essentially hollow works with a façade of esoteric meaning. The second is a curatorial issue characteristic of frequently cacophonous and discordant group shows that, without a tight curatorial scheme, say little and might be just as effectively viewed as isolated, individual works without an effective platform to voice collective argument or narrative.
There are instances when these criticisms take a legitimate grasp on Josh Whitaker and Perce Jerrom’s duo show, when it becomes mired by its own playful ambiguity or where conscious testing of the boundaries of curatorial coherence goes too far. The title of the show is simply a list of the works exhibited, and the information supplied online in advance and as printed matter within the space is only an inventory of the materials on display. The visitor is left adrift in a sea of objects with two vague lists as their only interpretive apparatus. Whitaker and Jerrom also seem to reject the duo theme offered to them by CBS – their works seem to follow separate orbits. However, for me, two elements of the exhibition respond to these problems and rescue it.
Firstly, theirs is an ambiguity with both a purpose and, ultimately, a solid foundation of substance. In conversation, Jerrom stated his distaste for politically orientated, didactic works with a basic, overt message, while Whitaker invoked Lawrence Weiner’s famous imperative of conceptual art: “Learn to read art”.
Though not readily apparent, in this show both artists present works reliant upon a network of earlier, interrelated works and ask the viewer to solve the puzzle, to burrow into their histories and through the knot of ideas they’ve both built over recent years. In Whitaker’s case this takes the shape of a written work in progress. All his contributions to the show are the belongings of the book’s dead protagonist. For both artists this process of occlusion and revelation is an invitation or a provocation to activity. “Go-ahead,” they seem to say, “exert your intellect, look it up, and be rewarded.”
Secondly, the curatorial issues that threaten to haunt the show are resolved on a few fronts. The limited thematic and formal links that do exist – the jagged landscapes of Yosemite and Carrara; Michaelangelo’s marble and Jerrom’s childhood Mutant Ninja Turtle night light; their shared preoccupation with mortality – negate any accusation of an oil-and-water separation of the two artists’ work, leaving them loosely threaded together instead. These two close friends have worked closely, if casually, to develop these connections.
But there is also a wilful disregard for any sense of coherence that might have been offered by collaborative works. Whitaker and Jerrom have produced work as a pair before but no such work is shown at CBS. This is explored by the bin bags floating in the eaves of the gallery. They correlate with the mysterious line of black blanks on the gallery guide, as if words have been censored. Contained in these bags are helium balloons spelling “You Only Live Once”, the title of the work hidden behind the text’s black occlusions. It is an extension, by Jerrom, of his earlier shared work with Whitaker exhibited at Blip Blip Blip in Leeds in 2013. By obfuscating the balloons Jerrom asks us to uncover them and so questions the value of the easily readable art object while actively veiling the sort of easily readable duo gesture that would have been present in a collaborative work.
Ultimately, this work is a summary expression of Whitaker and Jerrom’s refusal to engage with what we might expect from a conventional duo show. Instead it points to greater concerns shared by both artists, namely: the holistic understanding of their diverse body of work and the necessary affirmation of the viewer’s vital role in the continuing development of contemporary and conceptual art. Though they tempt some significant criticisms in the show, this is a valuable message from the artists, hard-won by the viewer, and to the continuing credit of CBS.
Sean Ketteringham is a writer and postgraduate student based in London and Liverpool.
Twitter: @seeanate // Instagram: @seeanate