Art review: Shonky: The Aesthetics of Awkwardness, Dundee Contemporary Arts

The Shonky Bar by John Walter. PIC: Ruth Clark.
The Shonky Bar by John Walter. PIC: Ruth Clark.
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The dictionary definition of “shonky” throws up words like “unsound”, “shoddy”, “of dubious integrity”. But none of these easily fits with the 14 artists in this colourful group show, curated for Hayward Touring by John Walters. His “shonky” is more to do with being lo-fi, maximalist, process-driven, handmade without necessarily being well crafted. The high priest and priestess of this aesthetic are Phyllida Barlow and Kurt Schwitters (neither of whom are in the show). The results are often colourful and kitschy; according to an essay by Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan for the catalogue, it is “the faux leopard skin coat” of art.

Shonky: The Aesthetics of Awkwardness, DCA ***

The best definition is in Walters’ own essay: shonky is like Les Dawson’s piano playing. He could play very well, but by using an instrument which was out of tune or had keys missing, he created work which was “dissonant, hilarious and original”. Shonky art is more than bad art, it’s art which deliberately makes use of imperfections in order to do what it does.

Yet, even by writing this, I’m missing an important element of shonkiness: it’s anarchic, mischievous, playful tendencies. Shonky – and here’s an unusual concept in contemporary art – is meant to be fun. One of the biggest mistakes you can make with this show is to wear your serious looking-at-art face.

As exhibitions go, it’s loud, bright, crowded and not especially easy to navigate. If you can put up with this, you will discover a fresh focus on artists who have slipped out of fashion, as well as a grouping of artists who have not been shown together before, which allows their work to shed light on one another.

It’s a chance to see Andrew Logan’s mirrored mosaic busts and sculptures of gay and drag icons, and the paintings and video work of Duggie Fields (who also features on one of Logan’s busts) and to see these next to Niki de Saint Phalle’s joyfully wonky small-scale sculptures of women and animals. These artists use a shonky aesthetic to question dominant ideologies. American painter Louise Fishman challenges the predominantly male outlook of abstract expressionism from a feminist perspective by subverting its rules; it’s illuminating to see her in this context.

Austrian architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser is pure shonky. The photographs of his buildings, printed on huge pieces of fabric, are a delight. They are like children’s drawings brought to life, all odd windows, wonky roofs and bright colours; one hopes they are as much fun to live in as they look like they should be.

Kate Lepper’s sacks full of plastics and synthetic fabrics are actually very well made, if uncertain of purpose, as are Cosima von Bonin’s textile paintings and soft sculptures. Jacolby Satterwhite’s film is an odd mix of lo-fi and sophisticated.

To determine whether shonky, as Walters proposes, is a trend in art worthy of further examination depends on seeing more evidence. The idea clearly has some traction in the work of younger artists. In any case, a group show with a fresh approach is always to be welcomed, both because it introduces us to artists we might not know and because it allows us to see the ones we do know in a new and unexpected light.

Until 27 May