In Darkest Southwark

Every unfamiliar part of London is infinitely strange to begin with. This bit of Southwark had no distinctive features. After you left the main road the place consisted entirely of big rectangular solids, presumably council housing, but such pure, unpenetrated masses as you had never seen before. These hulks seemed to push against the pavements that ran along them until there was barely room to pass comfortably. Opposite, a low building spread itself behind a high metal fence, to which were tied rubberised banners with enthusiastic comments by parents selling the building within. So this unfriendly sprawl with windows in mirror glass was nothing but a harmless school.

How could an art gallery have landed in such barren soil, we wondered, as we turned into its street? Here was a little row of slightly older buildings, with a couple of former shop fronts painted an incongruous oxblood colour. You had to get extremely close to read the words ‘Matt’s Gallery’ and only then did you notice a row of artists’ names, half of them scored through in white paint which only half obliterated them. Were these artists formerly represented by the gallery, who’d left, and were now like deposed emperors remembered only in scratched out inscriptions?

The doorbell was answered quickly by a man looking surprised but not unfriendly, like one of those characters in Alice who has just waked up for no other reason than the story’s needing him in order to continue.

I didn’t notice then how ingenious the room he ushered us into was, only that it was incredibly small. It was also bright, and empty. We had come to see a friend’s exhibition, and we soon knew that we were in it, because the two small paintings on the entry wall contained small, nearly identical butterflies, and our friend is fascinated by moths and butterflies, about which she has some interesting ideas that I haven’t got to grips with yet. On the wall opposite was a larger painting consisting of patterns and marks in colours so subtle you even wondered if they were there at all.

The house we were in, for it felt like a house, was very small. We had already sensed that, having caught a glimpse as we entered of packed-in slivers of space beyond, in which someone was working. So we hardly needed to ask, is this all? is this room it? The man came back and said yes, I always pare down the work: leaving things out is the main task in a gallery. He put it better than that, and I believed that he meant it. He thought the small butterfly paintings were enough, and our friend had added the larger painting from an understandable fear of the void even in the confines of this little cube. For it was a cube, inserted into the fabric of the house on a pronounced diagonal, with its one way in, diagonally, at the corner.

This minimal insertion was the brainchild of the gallery man’s son, an architect who had studied and taught at places I knew and had taught in. So had the gallery man, who had spent longest at a place where I had given one of my worst lectures ever. I began to see the gallery man as quite an art work in himself. His shirt, half concealed by a purple fleece, was a hilarious display of summertime drinks. But it was the way the conversation jumped around that was particularly delightful, and before long I heard my wife inviting him to Kentish Town to carry on with this.

He explained the scoring-out of the artists’ names: it only meant that their exhibitions were over. They were minimal too and always lasted exactly eleven days. It seemed the same anarchic and even half-destructive impulse was surfacing in all these forms. It was an impulse that didn’t continue for that long in the same course but shifted its orientation continually. He told us he’d just bought a new batch of ISBNs, having used up his initial supply of 100. So we wanted to see all the past books, which turned out to be stylish fold-outs, not books, most of them.

Coming away, we saw the desolate scene with different eyes. In the large industrial hulks, like council blocks without the windows, we now knew that 100+ artists’ studios had formerly lodged. The runaway property boom that is destroying much of what anyone has ever loved about London has also sent these artists packing to create high class rentable space with the soulless anonymity of money itself.

At least one large drafty leftover of the big studio spaces survives as a funky café-gallery inhabited by a riff-raff of second hand furniture and assorted survivors of the art schools, one of the last jewels in the crown of British culture.

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