Contemporary Art London Galleries – commercial, artist run and what’s inbetween

Artists, collectors, curators and the public all have their opinions on what type of space they prefer to see contemporary art in. Personally I am much more attracted to more unusual and characterful, perhaps hidden spaces. For example, historic buildings have so much to offer that can add to the work being shown and sometimes the space itself becomes part of the story, as in the case of Dennis Severs’ House (which I am sure I will post about soon, as I recently visited it for the first time and was hooked). I am also drawn to that juxtaposition of the heritage and contemporary.

As well as the physical building itself, the type of gallery is taken into account when considering a suitable choice of space eg. a commercial gallery, artist run space or a hybrid of those.

Taking a look at three gallery spaces I visited the other day, showing contemporary art in London currently…

Firstly, Paradise Row gallery off Oxford Street, in the Fitzrovia area where quite a few galleries are setting up shop. This area is neither hipster East London, nor posh Mayfair. Paradise Row is a ‘white cube’ space, two floor commercial gallery representing 13 artists. I went to see the exhibition Drawings and I felt that the space was quite sterile and soulless. However, that suited the work – much of which was monochrome, on the first floor at least. I went to the exhibition with no previous knowledge regarding the show and this time there was no press release or blurb about the exhibition available. Luckily, a member of staff in the gallery gave an eloquent, detailed and knowledgeable tour around the show, which meant that connections between the ideas behind the works and their making could be easily understood. Without the tour, I would have felt quite lost and uninterested.

However, in the end, I concluded that this was an exhibition that successfully looked at the hugely wide theme of drawing, thankfully narrowing it down by considering the monochromatic, the geometric and drawing and drafting through a variety of media. To me, the interest lies in the different media used to tackle the subject of drawing.  So that for example, a light work, a video piece and a burned imprint into mdf were all used to consider monochrome, geometric shape and the idea of drawing.

My favourite piece from the show was Douglas White’s Lichtenberg Figure II, Lichtenberg figure on MDF board.

Douglas White Lichtenberg Figure II, 2010 Lichtenberg figure on MDF board (photograph from

This is because it is a beautiful piece (I’m an aesthete at heart), using an interesting technique (burning onto wood), created with everyday materials. The status of the work is raised through associations made when considering it such as connections to images from nature, brain synapses, the birds eye view of a river…

Next, onto the Charlie Dutton Gallery in Holborn. This is a tiny one and a half room gallery which has been set up in an old shop space. The space is glass fronted and inside, Tudor style (recreated from the Victorian age, echoing the features of the genuine original Tudor building itself) beams decorate the ceiling space. The space feels full of history, character and is homely. It is small but not too squashed and Charlie told us that the white walls for showing work can be moved to alter the space. There is also a fireplace which adds to the sense of being in the front room of a historic house.

According to Charlie,

‘the space aims to combine and promote ideals in contemporary fine art, working directly with artists on the curating, production and management of the shows in the gallery, to create an exciting and cutting edge semi-artist-run and not-for-profit environment.’

It is impressive that Charlie has achieved so much, working alone and it is also refreshing to see a semi-artist-run space in what is basically central London.

I really liked this space and was attracted to the show because of how enthusiastic and genuine Charlie himself was to to talk to as well. He had used a simple curatorial technique in showing the current exhibition Parallel Universe as he asked the artists involved in the exhibition to select one artist each, to also have their work shown.  I will look out for future shows and events at this space, where Saatchi and Tate gallery have already collected from, since it opened a just a few years ago.

Finally, onto the Mesolithic Pop exhibition by The New Primitives which is situated in an underground warehouse space near to Oval underground station, provided by Workspace Group.

I found Mesolithic Pop to be a fun, not too weird and very enjoyable show. I was lucky to meet the three artists who make up The New Primitives and they were extremely articulate and interesting when giving a tour of the show and discussing their work. There are many layers of ideas and themes behind their work and the show, but the main idea concerns the bringing together of three UK based artists who all share an interest in the primal act of art making and the basic nature of creativity. The idea of “pre language” and man’s desire to communicate with whatever material is at hand is paramount to these artists’ practice. Physical contact with the environment and a quest for understanding through making objects is what drives the works in this exhibition to be made. These artists revel in traditional production methods, shunning the digital world.

The space is very large, being an underground warehouse and this was perfect for showcasing big scuptural pieces and photographic prints in the exhibition. I was particularly struck by Francis Thorburn’s performances or ‘drags’.

Francis Thorburn, an example of a 'drag' performance (photograph from

Illustrated by the image above, Francis orchestrates the dragging of  a huge lump of chalk, by a group of men dressed uniformly and primitively. A line is created and the act of carrying out this pointless task comments on machismo and a sense of togetherness.  For the Mesolithic Pop show, a drag was carried out on the streets of South London. Apart from the themes of masculinity and primitiveness, there is a great deal of humour and fun involved which came across well, as a video of one of the drags is shown on loop in the exhibition.

I also very much liked Joel Gray’s beautiful alabaster sculptures (apologies that I couldn’t find any decent images). Alabaster sculptures of items of modern technology sit on a roughly carved small table and next to the table on the ground, are bones or are they tools… is this a room in a caveman’s dwelling or a shrine or tomb? The viewer is not quite sure, but the way the material is worked, creates a haunting effect.

The artists commissioned an essay for the exhibition which academically bases a fun and beautiful show. The poster for which, has got this group (is it a band? looking at the album cover esque poster that I was given a copy of) noticed.

The New Primitives. Mesolithic Pop (photograph from