‘NEW Wheat, NEW Mud, NEW Machine’ is a major exhibition of works by Glasgow-based artist collective Poster Club, emerging from their participation and presentation in Cooper Gallery’s initiative ‘CURRENT’, an ongoing two-year international project with Shanghai Himalayas Art Museum in China. The exhibition simultaneously resumes Cooper Gallery’s interest in the ecologies of artist-led collaborative practices, which constitute somewhat of a tradition in Scottish contemporary art. ‘Studio Jamming’, which took place from June-August 2014, presented works in performance, theatre, sound and video by collaborators Graham Eatough & Graham Fagan, Full Eye, Henry XIII’s Wives and GANGHUT. At the heart of both of these presentations is an exploration into the living processes of artists’ collaborations. Poster Club’s current project draws on the subject of ‘work’ itself, as an economic, political and personal action. In particular, co-operative practices and the studio are explored, described in the exhibition introduction as the ‘manual’ or its “wheat” and “mud” alongside globalisation and its stock exchange, its “machine”.
Poster Club present printmaking as an experimental and subversive site of production, exchange and distribution. Processes here – commented on at an artists talk during the exhibition opening – illuminate how their collaboration meets and unfolds, a working mechanism jointly voiced by its members as “musical, tonal and improvisational”, while images resist completion by being openly “unfinished, contradictory or ambiguous; ripe for relegation or retirement.” The members of this artistic ‘supergroup’ (Anne-Marie Copestake, Tom O’Sullivan, Nicolas Party, Ciara Philips, Charlie Hammond and Michael Stumpf) suggest the Club “allows them to have experiences outside of their comfort zones, the studio is a site of action for play and problem-solving and is designed to be a flattening of hierarchies.” They summarise these cross-pollinating, unifying and pluralistic actions as an “institutional self-critique”, a slogan which appears and repeats, like a mantra, throughout the entire exhibition.
Poster Club is comprised of members who individually have solid internationally recognised practices, which form entry points to understand the Club’s amalgamated aesthetics and concepts, or conversely allow the viewer to indulge in its reverse engineering. The collective includes Anne-Marie Copestake whose recent film on the British holographic artist Margaret Benyon is a supposition on the perception of images and a pursuit of new technologies to hold and distribute them; Ciara Phillips whose printmaking of solid and transparent colours and found images within a socially-engaged practice earned her a Turner Prize nomination last year; Michael Stumpf whose practice fuses haphazard sculpture in abrasive everyday materials with deceptive incongruent texts; and Tom O’Sullivan, whose object-based installations as part his collaborative practice with Joanne Tatham, meld the theatrical with sculptural word-play and absurdist performance.
The exhibition opens with its title abbreviated into a finger-gesture typeface, alongside a full set of credits rendered in glamorous gold vinyl. The gallery vestibule holds a giant black-and-white mural of its ‘self-critique’ slogan and then opens into the main exhibition space with a burst of prints of speech bubbles, light bulbs, gargoyles, pasta shapes, slices of burnt toast that resemble faces, colour halftones, bricks and blocks of solid primary colours. Overprinted with statements and questions such as “Every Damn Day”, “Who Owns the Moon?”, “Future Slant” and “Without Epoch”, a blur of enthusiastic hands is very evident. The installation’s cut-and-paste, seemingly hasty, aesthetic evokes a technological spewing of computer-generated short slogans, and yet the exhibition eschews the digital and the screen: offering instead proudly and resolutely material works for paper and fabric. Wooden, DIY projection screens from the Cooper Gallery’s previous exhibition ‘ALL SYSTEMS.. go’ are recycled into stick figures and displayed throughout the spaces. They resemble Tatham & O’Sullivan’s figurative sculptural installation ‘This has reached the limit of its own rhetoric’ (2005), except here the figures from those sculptural works are draped in decorated, artist smocks. Representing a playful version of this previous work and of themselves, in the exhibition guide the figures are described as “figures of speech.”
Returning the exhibition to its prior incarnation in Shanghai, and the project’s premise as a cultural bridge between Scotland and China, an audience member at the artists’ talk noted similarities of a group-work ethos in traditional Chinese printmaking with its collective hands and shared purposes. It restated a notion that Poster Club, and other similar artistic collaborative groups in Scotland - held together by a common ground of displaying the merits of social interaction and intellectual collectivism - are its folk art. Self-critique through collaborative action forms its material, and the visualisation of this team work - through a layering of texts, imagery, colour and pattern - becomes its voice.