REFRESH ART AWARD | London, 5th Base Gallery

In the 5th Base Gallery, in the heart of Brick Lane, the contemporary art world is experiencing a revolution, dedicated to the representation of emerging artists overlooked in the contemporary art market. You will find no hyperreal portraiture or commercially sponsored red wine here. What you will find is an immensely inspiring snapshot of what Refresh Art Award calls the “true face of contemporary art”.

The Refresh Art Award goes to Lucille Dweck for her thrilling portrait Sunburst, which focuses on immensely skilled reflections and refractions of light hitting a naked bather as she lies back in a body of brilliant water. Dweck has a curious ability to make the paint feel both representational and also opaque. At the corners of the work, in nooks and crannies of reflected light the canvas becomes bare and strokes are deconstructed, yet miraculously the illusion subsists. In the same way, the human body interacts with nature and is lost in a kind of loving embrace. The effect is thrilling and empowering.

The Drawing Special Mention goes to Muses And Sibyls by Emma Louise Hollaway, who captures two statuesque women in luxuriant dress (after Angelica Hoffman), but totally expunges their faces. The effect is stark, gesturing towards the erasure of female artists and female agency from the canon of representation.

A Prize For Our Times is awarded to Fred Fabre’s No Future. In an apocalyptic phantasmagoria, the sun sets on a mound of refuse enveloping London, atop of which a young woman regards the legacy of Victorian industrial growth (as represented by the fading ghost of a Victorian gentleman, complete with top hat and gloves).

Aside from the prizewinners, the quality of the work on show is consistently excellent. Each work has unexpected depth and serves as a testament to the instincts of the curators. Alexandra Greasby offers a particularly startling portrait, one of a series of five. Ostensibly an image of a young woman on a night out, the paint drips down the canvas like tears. A flash of the UV torch beside reveals the harrowing title, Apparently if you go home with someone, consent is assumed. I don’t even remember getting home.

Other favourites include the beautifully loving gouache-on-paper portrait This Is Me by Nigel Rudkin, in which he attempts to capture “the fat female form in a positive, joyful, life-affirming way”: the expansive warmth and humanity of the sitter bathes the viewer in its loving light.

Another glorious use of colour is Leena Shah’s wonderful At the Cafe, capturing an ephemeral moment in a vivid frame, full of movement, in which the surface and texture of the building itself is given as rich and characterful a life as the figures in the foreground.

Less figurative works, like the abstract-expressionist Spine by Dex Hannon, capture a thrilling balance between the anatomical and the monumental, in their elusive but extremely redolent explorations of form and colour.

Simon Hartles’s monumental Anamnesis Ocean III — a turquoise-green disc formed of raw pigments, oils, acrylics, spray paints, inks, varnishes, natural clays and oxides usually used in ceramics — conjures an unearthly yet intimately recognisable world, which gently gestures towards a need to move away from anthropocentric thinking.

In attempting to find a new, more artist-focused way to do these kinds of exhibitions, Refresh has promoted work that seems more personal and at the same time more culturally relevant than is often exhibited in the major galleries. Nowhere is this seen more than in Fiona Macphee’s astonishing Spitscape 1. The resulting artwork, an extraordinary photographic piece, is constructed by placing negatives in a petrie dish with the artist’s saliva before capturing the micro-organism cultures to create dramatic ‘landscape’ images. The image itself gestures towards the continuity between human anatomy and geological formations, bodies and landscapes.

This exciting exhibition welcomes art of all different types, from figurative portraiture, to experimental photography, to multimedia works and sculpture. Constantly we are led back to Marc Chagall’s dictum, artfully included as a kind of preface: “If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.”

Dive into this amazing exhibition of overlooked artists 6 — 11 June 2019.

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