Approaching Castor Projects along the overground arches in Deptford, the gallery might easily appear closed at first sight. Its shutters, usually open to reveal the current exhibition through a set of large front windows, are rolled down, concealing the inside and already setting the tone for the unique creative experiment ‘Habitual’ presents to its visitors.
Entering the gallery through the small front door, the audience is directed towards the exhibition through a segue into a seemingly empty, light grey space with a lonesome bench and a large wooden structure in the corner. At this point there is still no sign of any art in an exhibition of 19 artists. However, instead of a conventional commercial group exhibition, ‘Habitual’ unfolds within the theatrical setting of a compulsive collector’s storage solution. The exhibition text written by David Northedge is a humorous inner monologue of said collector (rich with tongue-in-cheek puns such as “I’d simply buy-curious”). It’s a manic confessional about his or her obsessive tendencies, comparing art collecting to a kind of infectious disease or addiction, while simultaneously serving as a clever and suggestive introduction of the specific works of art in the exhibition.
The allegory of a Brechtian play seems accurate to describe the various layers of ‘Habitual’ insofar as its experimentation with breaking through the art world’s Fourth Wall, as well as changing the pace and choreography of the exhibition. The play commences as a member of the gallery staff invites the viewer to sit on the bench or simply watch on as they step onto the wooden structure (the ‘stage’) and start pulling out its racks one-by-one, revealing the 5 individually curated storage surfaces. Each of these chapters tells a different story, mixing gallery and non-represented artists. Some of my personal highlights include Grace Woodcock’s bodily sculptural piece ‘Pore-Tal’ (2020) evoking futuristic Spacewear in the shape of a soft inner ear. It invites the visitor’s touch both through its intimate materiality and its potential functionality, which is an overarching feature of Woodcock’s practice, balancing between practical design and decorative art. Rafal Zajko’s compact jesmonite sculptures, ‘Otwarcie’ (2020), ‘Vent I’ (2019) and ‘Rebuke’ (2020) are brilliant punchlines with their retro-tech aesthetics, resembling a bird’s-eye view of Soviet buildings or a flattened Gameboy surface. Their blockiness, both robust and somewhat endearing, is a nice contrast to other more ornamental artworks. A few more standouts are the dynamic and rich large oil painting ‘Asymptote’ (2020) by Ben Jamie and two separate smaller canvases, ‘On the Dorpsstraat’ (2020) and ‘On the Eikenlaan’ (2020) by Stevie Dix featuring high-heeled boots, which also speak to the fetishistic element of the exhibition’s metanarrative.
Not only does ‘Habitual’s framework challenge visitor expectations and add another performative dimension to the experience of visiting an art gallery, the intervention also happens on a temporal level. The hang is quasi Salon-style on each board, being antithetical to the display favoured by most commercial exhibitions with works spread out on a neat gallery wall. However, given the imminently theatrical context within which the viewer’s experience emerges, the works are in fact met with a more engaged way of looking that is encouraged by tweaking the tempo. Through each exhibition surface being revealed individually, the exhibition slows down the pace and limits the scope of the viewer’s gaze instead of letting us have it all at once.
In general, group exhibitions can be tricky to truly bring together under a common narrative instead of them being held together by a make-shift concept. The viewer’s attention might linger on some works but can fall into the passive habit of simply scanning over the walls, only engaging with the art in a flat, one-dimensional manner. ’Habitual’ tricks this habit into being more active through its inventive setting. And it takes it all the way – I spoke to Director Andy Wicks about his choice of leaving the entire gallery empty apart from the bench and the central storage structure. He said he in fact considered showing some sculptural work in the space at first, but eventually came to the conclusion that the mise-en-scene and concept would be served better by limiting visual access to the works to only one certain physical and temporal space, keeping them otherwise hidden from view.
These perhaps seemingly compromising, considerate decisions are what in fact make ‘Habitual’ a real experimental triumph. The exhibition manages to reach through the Fourth Wall of the art world in an entertaining and original way that subtly pokes fun at its absurdity, fetishisms and performativity. All the while it still remains graceful, foregrounds the integrity of featured artworks and doesn’t lose this to its elaborate concept.