Right now across London one senses the slow, even resigned, intake of breath as we buckle up for Frieze Week. Just ten days to go until the contemporary art world’s version of white water rafting becomes a de rigueur Olympic sport for us all. (Can you schedule all the openings, dinners, talks, performances and launches and still manage to look gym-bunny fresh walking the aisles of the fair, without a rictus twitch of FOMO?) It is in the nature of annual events to provide a metronomic marker of change with the passage of time: and so much has changed in the past 12 months.
This morning I totted up eight London galleries that have closed their doors this year. That’s just the ones I know about. Most of them were smaller outfits, supporting younger artists: run by individuals with a brilliant eye, promoting artists of their generation, or close to it. All of them worked their socks off and had a real following. But this town doesn’t make it easy, even for people who only aspire to break even, doing something they love.
So it is with a sense of real urgency that I urge you to get out and get around the galleries that you cherish. And if you don’t know them already, I commend to you the magically named French Riviera. A diminutive, artist run space on the western reaches of Bethnal Green Road, a special arrangement with the building’s owners crucially shields them from the scourges of the property market. This is huge. It allows that almost unheard-of thing: a true spirit of experimentation and risk-taking.
At the end of last week they opened a show with Jessica Warboys. Far from unknown, Warboys showed in Documenta 13 in 2012, she was one of the stars of the British Art Show 8, and her solo exhibition that was part of the reopening of the extended Tate St Ives has only just closed. After these grand institutional outings, what she has achieved in the narrow shop-front space at French Riviera is remarkable. Outside the wide window of the gallery, market traders set up their stalls with viscose dresses, arrange fruit and veg, pile plastic buckets and bowls. Inside, Warboys has created an immersive environment that lifts you out of time and place.
Along the left hand wall, the artist has unfurled one of her immense sea paintings. It is pinned loosely to the plaster, the end still rolled where it doesn’t fit the space. These canvases are famously created in and by the sea. Warboys folds natural mineral pigments into the canvas and then drags them through the shallows of the sea shore, so that the action of the waves dissolves and disposes the colours. It is an automatism for our times: a performative practice that eliminates the hand of the artist, incorporates an elemental closeness to the environment and produces monumental canvasses that seem to comment on the heroic male posturings of the mid-20th century.
Warboys is also known for her films but here, where space is at a premium, she has chosen a sound work to act as an adjunct to her paintings. Fading in and out is a soundtrack by Morten Norbye Halvorsen that alternates between a gravelly, vibrating bass and a higher, querulous tremolo. Musical, but not music, the sound here sets an emotional temperature, baffles ambient noise and focuses attention inwards. It has the effect of expanding perception of the space. Rows of spotlights are synched with the sound and modulate the experience of the gallery – especially in relation to the two relief paintings on the right hand wall. More domestic in scale, Flex and Tremolo (both 2017) throw intriguing shadows as the lighting changes. Clearly evolving from her earlier works, the paintings also evoke thoughts of twentieth century precedents – ever so slightly reminiscent, respectively of Enrico Castellani and Ben Nicholson. They are rather glorious.
The people behind French Riviera extend their experimental approach from their exhibition making into the way they run their space. It is serious but playful, brave and inquisitive and I profoundly hope they stick with it, as they may be part of showing the way towards a different way of doing things.
French Riviera, 309 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 6AH. Open Friday – Sunday 12.00 – 18.00, and by appointment. Exhibition continues until Sunday 15 October 2017. www.frenchriviera1988.com