Art reviews: Mariusz Tarkawian: Anticipating the Future | The 7th Street Level Open

THE world of contemporary art has become so large and so self-contained it can be like visiting one of those vast gated communities that are becoming popular in America.

Mariusz Tarkawian: Anticipating the Future

glasgow school of art


The 7th Street Level Open

street level photoworks, glasgow


There are shops, leisure facilities, restaurants; why would you ever want to leave?

Why venture into the badlands of the real world when you can spend your entire career making art about other art?

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The work produced that way is not always bad, and some of it even has a power to reach beyond its parameters of reference and catch the imagination of a viewing public. But much of it disappears into ever decreasing circles of self-referentiality, leaving viewers outside in the cold. At best it’s a kind of conversation between practitioners, at worst, an in-joke, and being on the outside of an in-joke is not a pleasant place to be.

There are overtones of in-joke about Anticipation of Art, the ongoing project by Warsaw-based Mariusz Tarkawian. He makes hundreds of postcard size pencil drawings of the kinds of works which he believes particular artists will make in the future, based on observing their current practice and seasoned with a heavy dash of irony. International artists such as Bill Viola and Cindy Sherman are name-checked, alongside himself, his friends, and some speculative propositions, including his two brothers, neither of whom are artists. Some Scottish names are in evidence, too, perhaps added for this version.

Certainly, he shows himself capable of shrewd observation. Probably Tracey Emin 2019 is an outline of a buttocks and legs with a striking resemblance to the work she produced for the British Pavillion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Probably Martin Creed 2016 is a pencil line on paper, measured at 150mm, with all the minimalism and precision that are Creed’s hallmarks. A few geometric rune-like lines disappearing off the side of the page are a keenly observed take on Hayley Tompkins. Tarkawian does what a comedian does in identifying the tropes of a particular artist and pushing them slightly further, just inside the realms of the ridiculous.

There is a boyish irreverence to all this, which the art world will love. What, after all, is the logical conclusion of Spencer Tunick’s installations of naked bodies, if it isn’t a kind of mass orgy? And the final work of Damien Hirst would surely be to have his own body preserved in formaldehyde and donated to the Tate. But at times the schoolboy humour wears a bit thin. Some of the sexually explicit drawings start to look like what a 15-year-old would doodle on the back of his maths jotter. And it seems disrespectful to veteran performance artist Marina Abramovic to describe her “future” as a female body suspended by the feet, or to ascribe a giant penis to sculptor and human rights activist Jimmie Durham.

Yet, for all its failings, this work has a natural home in an art school, where it becomes a kind of irreverent reference book for young artists (like Tarkawian, who is not yet 30 himself) working out their place in relation to their forebears by wrestling with them.

Three further walls of the Mackintosh Gallery are taken up by In Search of Lost Time in which Tarkawian mines his own past, copying his drawings, paintings and sculptures from early childhood through to his first year at art school when he had his first work exhibited. Here is the progression any parent will recognise, from scribbles and stick figures through rockets and aeroplanes to dinosaurs and marine wildlife, produced with increasing detail and confidence.

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But it is also possible to trace another journey: a lack of confidence developing in the late teens and early art school work, when the deftness and vigorous imagination fades. Perhaps the artist questions his own ability, or he questions the assignments he has been set and the restrictions these impose. This work – though it does not quite justify the amount of space it takes up – asks questions about the teaching of art, how much it enables and how much it inhibits, which are deeply relevant to the people who work and study in this building.

What will also strike a chord here is his dialogue with Hans Belting’s essay History of art put to the test, part of which is a large-scale drawing, a sprawling family tree that takes art from cave painting and Greek figurines through to Tarkawian himself, young and bearded, at the bottom.

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In a final series, Potential Artists, he has sketched his classmates from art school, capturing each in a few deft lines, and adding a plus or minus sign in the corner of each drawing to indicate whether or not the person has continued making art. There are more minuses than pluses, which also has an extra poignancy in the Mackintosh Gallery, at the heart of an institution which has been invested with the hopes of so many.

Meanwhile, the annual Open Exhibition at Street Level anticipates the future in another way by showing the work of 19 photographers,who illustrate between them how broadly the term is applied in contemporary practice. Some feel photography needs to fight its corner in the contemporary art world, but perhaps this is a healthy tension because – if this show is anything to go by – artists are continuing to push the form in new and interesting directions.

Inna Smullen’s large black-and-white photographs are never less than intriguing, like her noirish night-time photograph of a panther, perhaps in a zoo, perhaps out and about in the city. Her shot of a horse being lifted off the ground to be weighed makes a creature of strength and poise look suddenly vulnerable, utilising that ability the camera has to freeze a moment of strangeness and ask us to look at it.

Chris Leslie does something similar with his large-scale print of a half-demolished Glasgow tower block, making it look like a great monumental sculpture, towering above the night-time city in a kind of majestic decay. Jen Wilcox photographs St Kilda, but concentrates not on the classic images of towering cliffs and seabirds but on the radar range, with its strange dome, and prosaic traces of modern human life. Finlay Rankin’s expressive pictures show Govan in a new light, and Alex Boyd turns to a historic process, wet plate collodion, to create striking sepia images of the rock stacks at Dun Briste in Country Mayo.

Others use the camera to create fictions. The wonderfully named Flannery O’Kafka casts her own children in the roles of characters from romantic literature in their childhood. Stephen Healy uses modern architecture – concrete angles and reflections – to hint at science-fiction dystopias. Kristian Smith manipulates found photographs from the past, while Alex Hetherington uses film stills to create unexpected combinations of images. Theresa Moerman Ib’s works are small and unassuming, but they intrigue, exploring the power of the photograph as metaphor.

• Mariusz Tarkawian runs until 23 February, The 7th Street Level Open until 3 February.