In Keith Waterhouse’s ‘Billy Liar’ (1963), the eponymous hero, bored in his day job at a Bradford undertakers, has a daydream life as the heroic leader of a country called Ambrosia. Many of us nurture similar fictive inner worlds but scarcely document them. It is as though the bubble pops as soon as you tell the tale.
For several years now, Charles Avery’s drawings have painstakingly depicted the everyday lives of ‘The Islanders’, the inhabitants of an imaginary island world and its capital city, Onomatopoeia. The Island seems a close counterpart to our own world; in the Islanders’ last outing at Pilar Corrias in 2013, they were shown attending a star-studded group art show, ‘It Means It Means!’, curated – as though real – by Tom Morton, and clambering all over the Sol LeWitts. We encounter them again in Avery’s current exhibition, the first part of which was shown at Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery in 2015. Here they are shown variously gossiping, eating, visiting a zoo and hunting a mysterious animal called the noumenon, while their t-shirts, bags and posters make frequent references to previous works. There are suggestions of inequality in their society; while the Islanders at the zoo are shown as culturally literate, attending their art and theatre festivals and dutifully buying the promotional posters and tote bags, elsewhere other Islanders hunt animals and gather water barefoot. Avery, for the most part, concentrates on the urban-dwellers, and alongside the series of characteristically detailed large drawings, he is showing a selection of objects (custom furniture, bookends, lamps) which bring to life the Island’s design sensibilities.
Recent political developments in the UK have naturally left the issue of an island mentality very present in people’s minds. Avery has described his protagonists as philosophically engaged rationalists but with such clear contrast between the Island’s urban and rural life, you wonder how long before the Islanders might have a revolution. A few posters dotted around the zoo refer to a group called the Metas, who “renounce the dialectic in favour of violence”. On the whole, the Islanders’ concerns are loftier, about being and objecthood, existing and things, animal and inanimate. At times these philosophical references come close to undermining the work, as it becomes clear this isn’t so much a glimpse into the artist’s unguarded ‘Billy Liar’-style internal life as it is a conduit for philosophical discussions. That these concepts remain mostly abstract and apolitical is a pity. An animal called a noumenon doesn’t reveal any more about Kant than a fictional mime artist called Dasein does about Heidegger.
However, perhaps the exhibition reveals more truths about Avery’s approach to art making itself. Choosing an artistic practice framed primarily around narrative drawing feels awkwardly anti-fashion, a gesture of defiance in today’s contemporary art world. This commitment to awkwardness is welcome. Avery’s work is to some degree seeking to plot a third way between critical abstraction and pure narrative, but with theoretical references used as light window dressing, it can’t quite offer an escape from the reductive ‘kitsching’ of theory and philosophy that has blighted many other contemporary shows in recent years. That’s not to say that the total immersion in the world of the Islanders isn’t charming. There is an easy, infectious humour to the drawings, and right now the impulse to retreat inwards to imaginary worlds has never been more understandable.