Russell West Solo Show at the Woolff Gallery: Vivacious Continuities

Russell West. Unnamed artwork. Little boxes made of wire and metal are crammed together in a manner of Kowloon Walled City. The paint then is applied to the houses and the artist has let the paint drip, allowing the paint to run to other boxes or houses and mix with other colours.
Detail of Little Boxes XVIIII Oil on wire on board W60 x H80 x D16cm

The current exhibition at the Woolff Gallery, Russell West Solo Show (catalogue here), is a defining moment in the career of the Isle of Wight based artist. Walking into the gallery, the viewer is faced with a carnival of vibrant colours, prancing and dominating the space, often dripping over each other, negotiating the boundaries within each work. West achieves this effect through the repeated application of prepared layers of paint on a layout of wire and pins on board. As West himself describes his method:

I use paint to produce solid planes of colour, to represent walls or signage. Once in place, the paint continues to move, dribbling serendipitously downward until it dries.

This technique is the result of the artist’s having witnessed urban spaces being built, lived, demolished, and then left to the creative powers of imagination to shoulder the continuity of their existence.

The 2nd Happening is perhaps a key piece in the exhibition, in that it works as a double-edged metaphor—a metaphor that stands as Mr West’s ‘vivacity’ of art in its both literal and figurative senses: figurative, as the festival of colours serenades the eyes of the beholder; metaphoric, since the movements of the paint-pieces on the ‘canvas’—the trails, the leaks, the self-automating oozing seep—have created a living art-piece that has done some of its own creation. West has borrowed life for his art from his oil by having allowed paint to live, for his work is essentially about living environments and life.

The 2nd Happening
The 2nd Happening Oil on board W110 x H60cm

One can see an image of Kowloon Walled City (九龙城寨) entangled in West’s current exhibition, especially those that I conveniently call the ‘cabin works’. Having witnessed the last years of the Walled City, West seems to have snatched the ideas of urbanity and self-regulation (Kowloon Walled City was not planned by the officials, but by its inhabitants for their own needs) and has negotiated them with his art form.

Little Boxes XVIII
Little Boxes XVIII Oil on wire on board W60 x H80 x D16cm
A playground at the edge of the city
Kowloon Walled City

Like the Walled City, and in fact like many other urban spaces (including our own London), in the cabin works the space is easefully convoluted, mixed irreparably, yet has sublimely kept a functional reality to it, in which one could imagine each bloc as a home, and the whole piece as an urban space. West’s careful choice of colours captures the magical reality of life both imagined and lived.

‘Chung Lo Ying and family, long-time residents of the City’, from City of Darkness.

Yet, I see in his cabin works a synthesis of coming to terms with demolition and flux: nothing is abandoned in West’s works, but things continue their existence: homes live on, with or without their inhabitants. Paint from a labyrinthine network dribbles down and becomes an icicle in one cabin, the same way the living network of fauna and flora prevail over ghost towns. Each happening is a second one, even what was imagined to be the first. It is for this single and simple fact that West’s works register themselves as essentially contemporary and post-humanist, without being dystopian or futuristic.

2018-06-25 17.04.23
Detail of Neighbourhood VII Oil on wire on board W60 x H82 x D16cm (own photograph)

One of my favourite artworks in this exhibition is Lingerie XIII. The piece is constructed with the same mindset and technique that unifies the exhibition, but with more rigidity and edge. And I perceive it as an artwork paying tribute to feminine beauty, and, on a deeper and more fundamental level, as one equating femininity with urbanity, self-regulation, autonomy, and independence.

Lingerie XIII
Lingerie XIII Oil on pins on board W54 x H85 x D16cm

West captures a sense of nostalgia without the discolouration of regression. The careful choice and juxtaposition of colours and the leaked streaks of oil are vivaciously progressive and bring the desolate spaces to life. In this exhibition West never mourns, but ever celebrates. The exhibition is a construction of destruction, which, without West’s work, would have remained a mere paradox.

This is another successful exhibition hosted by the Woolff Gallery. The lighting is carefully adjusted to show the nuanced details of each piece and the arrangement of the artworks are led by a measured understanding of the exhibition. This Fitzrovian gallery certainly has established itself as a cultural hub for diverse and innovative artists. The Woolff Gallery is assuredly an exciting, inspiring, welcoming space and the well-laid-out two-story space gives one ample time to reflect on the exhibits.

Exhibition details:

22 June – 14 July 2018

Woolff Gallery, 89 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 4PU

* images taken and reproduced by kind permission of the gallery and the artist.

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