Public Gallery: No Time Like the Present (online)

Important: Complete solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in Minneapolis and around the world. It would be wrong not to address this in any content being created at this moment in time. To those (individuals, organisations and institutions) who have chosen not to offer loud and meaningful support with the platform that you have: your silence is deafening. 

Public Gallery, an established and highly regarded gallery in East London, have moved online for this exhibition that I believe to be particularly timely; not just as a response to the current pandemic, but also in that the timing does not feel sensitive; it is not Too Soon (there was a time a few weeks ago where I couldn't even bring myself to check Twitter out of despair from the scaremongering, let alone watch the news) to be displaying art made during, and on the subject of, quarantine. In fact Public Gallery's exhibition feels fresh and there is a certain comfort in the unique universal ability to relate to the work.

Justin Liam O'Brien, Tired in the Days that Passed Away, 2020. Oil on canvas, 36cm x 33cm


Unlike many virtual shows, whereby there is a virtual reality-lite space to roam through, Public Gallery have kept it simple by listing and captioning the works, reminiscent of more of an "online viewing room". It does not affect the enjoyment of the different pieces though, and the first up, New York-based Justin Liam O'Brien's 'Tired in the Days that Passed Away' is testament to this. The soft spray aesthetic of the oil paint depicts a figure lying in bed reading a book with a warmly hued lamp nearby. This entrapment that lockdown has forced upon us is shown clearly on the canvas, as is the mild tedium of having nothing to do, as well as the solitude. The split between wholesome activity presented sweetly and a looming darkness of the context are intriguing bedfellows. 

London-based artist duo Luisa Me's piece 'Is this still my room?' is far more chaotic, balancing out the smooth yet underlying anxious mood of O'Brien's earlier work. The main figure in the piece, which is oil and acrylic paint on cardboard, is a fairly non-descript Kafkaesque creature, very bug-like and ugly to behold, and clearly in some distress. Its many arms are flailing in different directions in front of a plain blue bed, almost like a hospital setting. But I feel the work to be more exasperated by the lockdown, and spending increasing amounts of time in the bedroom all the time has stripped it of its comforting, or even sexual, qualities.

Lily Wong, Keep On Keeping On [Repetition], 2020. Acrylic on paper, 46cm x 61cm


Another New York-based artist whose work feels like it is very much on the same vibe as O'Brien's is Lily Wong with her aptly titled 'Keep On Keeping On [Repetition]'. A human head is trapped in a well-like hole in the ground, with animals leaping and jumping on the ground around it. The hazy lines between work, rest and play are lovingly depicted here in grey and orange. Nature's reactions to the slowing down of human life are certainly the silver lining for most of us, and Wong's bunny figures running while the human is stuck and stationary is bizarrely comforting, having a similar effect to the anthropomorphised animals in Disney films. German artist Fabian Treiber again has a soft visual impact but with a different style to both Wong and O'Brien; Treiber's painting 'Idle' boasts the same stillness as the latter artist, but with a vibrancy and level of hope that is an integral part to our current existence and collective mental wellbeing.

Florian Treiber, Idle, 2020. Acrylic, ink and pastel on paper, 33cm x 24cm.

Amusingly, the theme becomes slightly more abstracted as you scroll through the exhibition, which is by no means a bad thing; you wouldn't want the lockdown narrative spoon-fed to you while you're also living it. Roxanne Jackson's 'Chrome Cat', for example, is something that needed a few moments to stew in my mind before I considered it might be an ode to the domestic companion, in chrome, which is another domestic material in the bathroom. Our relationship with nature is explored here, and the rich palette of Treiber's piece is contrasted to a sculptural work by William Darrell. Having a sculpture in a non-physical show does make you question whether you can really feel its impact without sharing space with it, and whether sculpture is the least affecting medium of art in these socially distant times, but the sharp and familiar aesthetics, as well as a captivating title alluding to nature and the cyclical nature of time, makes the piece powerful and whet my appetite for being back in a gallery sometime soon. As time seems to stand still as we anxiously await the future, ‘No Time Like the Present’ is a mindful meditation on the present moment; we can't escape it and we must be as active as possible. Appreciating art can be a mode of mindfulness and here we can appreciate that more than ever.

William Darrell, Watching the Blossom Come and Go, 2020. 3D printed PLA plastic, copper and artificial flowers, 120cm x 20cm x 20cm