Bedwyr Williams is one of those rare figures in the art world, with the ability to hold up the mirror to all who pass through its circus halls, and yet remain loved and respected as a maker and satirist. I write these words separately as if they might be considered as two career positions, but of course they are part of the same practice, if one with multiple branches. For the Welsh artist appears able to cross disciplinary thresholds with ease; willing to wear any hat that fits when it comes to the contextual or material needs of his projects.
It’s the last London weekend of MILQUETOAST, his travelling solo exhibition, currently installed across Southwark Park Galleries’ (SPG) two sites in Bermondsey. I urge anyone who can see it there to do so, but it’s also moving on to future Welsh destinations: Tŷ Pawb, Wrexham, July-September 2021 and Aberystwyth Arts Centre, January-March 2022.
As an admirer of Williams’ biting and brilliant use of social media, I had some reservations about how his (iPad) drawing practice, specifically, being so well-designed for the context, might translate in physical space. Certainly, there have been times I’ve felt every bit the ‘follower’ when scrolling through them, for we can all find parts of ourselves and those we know in his realm of acid pastels and wry linearity. Could this itchy, awkward connection between work and viewer be replicated beyond the intimate handheld screen-moment?
Not exactly, but there is nothing about Williams’ selection or SPG’s restrained curation that suggests they have tried to. It’s an expansive view of a practice; a studio marriage of remotely-critical and personal sensibilities rendered with a deftness of hand that appears almost automatic in its ability to describe aspects of the cultural mood, in both two and three dimensions.
The first contact with his ever-growing cast of culturalites is on paper in glass vitrines. Having become used to these caricatures in digital form, the idea of them as drawings in the traditional sense – as well as the fact this is my first return visit to SPG in years – imbue the moment with a whiff of the reunion. Above all, they are hilarious, it’s a good job we are wearing masks. There’s the “allergic to everything in the buffet historian” with the greasily slick-backed ‘do; the “charismatic knob in conversation” loosely afforded, in few strokes, a Miami-Vice vibe; the middle-class wholefoods glow of “artists celebrate their Irish passports arriving in friends’ polytunnel”.
I could go on, but likely most who visit will be familiar with this side of his practice. Seeing them hand-drawn and in the flesh underlines Williams’ observational abilities. It’s the mercurial combination of line and text that delivers, not just the funny, but the full gamut of quirks that make people who they are and of their context. Here, even in flick-book filmic form in a separate viewing space, and with a grrr soundtrack they appear more naughty (and nuanced) than straight-up derisory in tone, like found gossip you always suspected.
This, part one of the exhibition, features an attractive abstract-graphic trellis of black lines over the walls. It’s of the Modern, but after capitalism; Mondrian after Studio Line. Whether this is Williams’ intention or not, the idea of acknowledging the influence of high art on culture as we live it (rather than simply cherry-picking influences from the halcyon art-historical garden), certainly chimes with his refusal to pretend when it comes to the way things are. Even as a creator of fantastical narratives, as evidenced in earlier installations, incorporating a variety of media and storytelling approaches.
Dotted in and around the spaces created, are a series of paintings in different styles, like a low-fi gallop across a google search for art before all the images have loaded. Some have that accidentally crude, charity shop blear, which is both tender and depressing, others are highly covetable, whether folkish and charming or ‘toonesque in their ‘real life’ or ‘out there’ fictional propositions. However impressive Williams’ effortless, almost half-arsed aping of styles, it’s the atmosphere he creates that’s most interesting. Again, it’s his dexterity in manipulating matter that makes the status quo so slippery and hard to pin down – in terms of both the nature of his roasting and our engagement with the joke. The title, with its allusions to the bland, offers yet another referential surface to slide off.
As an exhibition space, Dilston Grove is an entirely different beast to deal with. A former church, gutted but still full of delicious details, it always threatens to be the star of every curatorial venture. Williams/SPG have set the scenario up much like a future-employee workshop, if one that is uncharacteristically engaging. We are given the party line in video form before entering the nave, heads marinated in the artist’s tightly written and animated film. It details a limp handshake of a hostage scenario – in a gallery, between cultural activists and the staff. With all characters filmed from the knee down, we are reliant on a very few, but intensely accurate, details to garner a sense of who they are. In essence, it’s the caricatures come to life in a section of moving-imagery that situates us between Southwark Park and South Park.
But nothing you learn here actually prepares you for the sculptural spectacle to follow. Williams’ cement models of outlandishly altered Modernist buildings are a delight to behold on many levels. The long line of miniature street lights illuminating every one allows for the hallowed hall to do what it does best, all the while pinging those less-earnest visitor senses to encompass suggestions of the tourist/biennale experience. I don’t know if I’m being conceptually brought to my knees here at the altar of god, art or light entertainment; in church, Venice or at the Harry Potter World, but I’m loving every option.
All images copyright Damian Griffiths, courtesy Bedwyr Williams and Southwark Park Galleries