LONDON — “It’s a question of where you feel you belong,” reads one of Wolfgang Tillmans’s downloadable Between Bridges posters from his EU Campaign. “Vote Remain on 23rd June.” Tillmans, like much of the rest of England’s creative class and, indeed, most of the world, didn’t anticipate that his fellow countrymen would actually vote to leave the European Union. Several months later, the nation is in the throes of a still-impending Brexit. Prominent cultural organizations including Frieze magazine and the Creative Industries Federation have spoken out to decry the loss of international funding opportunities and the presumptive decrease of mobility for artists within Europe. Walking through the tents of Frieze, one of London’s largest international art fairs, in Regent’s Park last weekend, visual evidence of Brexit’s impact was all around. But drawing a clear conclusion remains, like the logistics of Brexit itself, difficult.
Tillmans may be one of the biggest names to have spoken out about the vote, but Pieter Schoolwerth’s paintings the subject in perhaps the most visually captivating and direct way. At the New York–based Miguel Abreu Gallery’s booth at Frieze, his 2016 series Leave/Remain offered no pretense, commanding attention with its red, white, and blue palette and complex amalgamation of forms receding and protruding within the picture plane. In each of the paintings, form is defined in part by absence — tables are completed not by their own legs but by human ones standing behind them; walls and doors are propped up by the shadows of arms and heads. Schoolwerths’s technique was elucidated by the gallery’s inclusion of a three-dimensional foamcore model that the artist used to compose the paintings. He begins with digital photos of human figures and inanimate objects and then draws the models and their shadows. Upon importing and enlarging these drawings in an image-processing system, he manipulates their shapes further, then prints them onto canvas, where he adds gestural strokes of oil paint.
In the Leave/Remain paintings, Schoolwerth’s handpainted EU and Union Jack flags become both foreground and background. Golden stars stand out against royal blue in “Leave/Remain #1,” as do Adidas sneakers and Chinese porcelain bowls — traces of Schoolwerth’s digital manipulations but also symbols of a globalized network of commerce and branding. In “Leave/Remain #2,” Britain’s Union Jack is more prominently in play, but pieces of the EU stars are still visible. For Schoolwerth, breaking up human forms along with the trappings of domestic stability is an attempt to understand the fragmented nature of a Brexit deal that threatens normalcy. Schoolwerth’s paintings are captivating not necessarily because of the heady flag imagery or bright colors, but because they reconfigure form to create a tension that mirrors the political murkiness of the real world.
If Schoolwerth’s recent paintings made for incisive political commentary, elsewhere at Frieze it was refreshing to see older, pre-Brexit works cast in a new light. Grayson Perry’s hand-embroidered tapestry from 2014, “Britain is Best,” took on a sinister light at London gallery Victoria Miro. The 2003 Turner Prize winner explores class conflict in his work, with references to kitschy folk art and decorative ceramics, as well as depictions of council estates. In “Britain is Best,” Perry depicts five loyalists from East Belfast that he witnessed marching in a centenary celebration of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Unionist militia formed to block self-governance by the Irish in the early 20th century. Perry says, of this work, “Ironically, being fervently patriotic is not a particularly British trait,” and his “colorful and jolly style” was meant to hint at the aggressive nature of Northern Irish politics. If gentility is de rigeur and blatant patriotism frowned upon, Brexit might seem to be a fluke in British politics — but it is reality all the same. The nationalist sentiment that Perry meant to mock now becomes more than ironic; it becomes depressing.
Perhaps the best argument for the fallacy of a pure patriotism was on display at the booth of London-based Hollybush Gardens. There, a bright red and brown piece by Lubaina Himid featured a small image of a sparrow, below which shaky letters read, “Dreaming Has a Share in History.” Himid is an artist of Tanzanian descent whose work with East African textiles explores the material dimension of diaspora. For this series, she painted British fauna to recall kangas, colorful fabric worn in the African Great Lakes region as clothing; in doing so, she manages to blur boundaries and histories with a cheery visual vocabulary that’s less cheeky than but not entirely dissimilar from Perry’s.
Himid works with the idea that national identity is necessarily a mythology, or what Benedict Anderson refers to as an “imagined community” — imagined because citizens of a nation will never meet the majority of the other members of their nation, and a community because, despite this limitation, there is a sense of comradeship. Brexit was predicated on the assumption that there is a singular, unified notion of Britishness that must be rescued from the clutches of an international, multicultural world in order to preserve its uniqueness; Himid’s intervention suggests that the fabric of nationhood is necessarily contingent on difference — that nationhood is in fact a recognition of difference with the promise of solidarity. Her argument is bolstered by an event like Frieze itself, which is avowedly international — this year, the fair invited artists, curators, and writers from around the world to discuss the contentious topic of “Borderlands” — and belies the notion of a single identity for British art. There’s no telling what will become of Britain’s creative milieu once the terms of Brexit are defined, but it could do worse than to take the lessons of Frieze and its artists to heart.
Frieze London 2016 took place October 6–9 at Regent’s Park.