On the 6th August 1988, the first in a three-part exhibition series of students and recent alumni from Goldsmiths art school opened to little fanfare in a semi-derelict London Port Authority building at Surrey Docks. Spearhead by Damien Hirst, then an unknown art student in the second year of his BA, a rag-tag group of young artists had spent weeks converting the run down warehouse space into a makeshift gallery - removing radiators, isolating existing electrics, boarding over broken windows, erecting temporary stud walls and scrubbing away pigeon shit. Freeze - its title inspired by exhibiting artists Matt Collishaw’s guttural photograph of a gaping head wound - featured the work of Hirst alongside his contemporaries such as Sarah Lucas, Ian Davenport, Fiona Rae, Gary Hume, Michael Landy and Angus Fairhurst (the oft-overlooked originator of his peer groups artist-led ethos following a self-organised exhibition at Bloomsbury Gallery of London's Institute of Education earlier that year).
At that time, London was described by then-fledgling art dealer and Hirst’s housemate Carl Freeman as “something of a backwater” in the global art scene, unable to compete with the cultural hubs of New York or Cologne. Contemporary art as we know it now was inconceivable, with only a handful of artists exhibiting at a handful of galleries catering to a handful of collectors. Future Frieze founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover - the name a pure coincidence - noted later that even in the early 1990s the entire London art world entourage could comfortably fit “in a single pub”. Simultaneously, with Post-Thatcherite Britain experiencing the proverbial latter end of an economic boom and bust, a recession triggered by the Black Monday stock market crash had left a slew of empty offices, retail units and industrial spaces strewn across the capital. It is perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, that artists unwilling to wait patiently in line for gallery representation saw such spaces as an opportunity to operate outside of the traditional modus operandi, and began to self-organise and self-initiate their own exhibitions and project spaces.
By all accounts, Freeze was not well attended, with many commenting in the succeeding decades that most who claim to have visited are in fact being misleading. However, those who did make the trip, courtesy of a fabled ride in Hirst’s own car, included Charles Saatchi, budding art dealer, art collector, ad-man and soon to be patron of a new monikered art movement, Norman Rosenthall, Exhibitions Secretary at The Royal Academy of Arts, and Nicholas Serota, fresh from the announcement of his Tate directorship, which began a month later. Amongst the artist’s peers group, the exhibition ushered in an era of the artist-led and proved the possibilities of the non-traditional gallery space, spawning later warehouse shows such as Sarah Lucas and Henry Bond's East Country Yard Show, Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman's double bill of Modern Medicine and Gambler, and Michael Landy’s Market.
Upon reflection, it is evident that Freeze, its attendees Serrota, Rosenthal and Saatchi, and of course Hirst himself, all heralded a new Young British Art avant-garde. The exhibition itself birthed six future Turner Prize nominees and one winner (Hirst), saw Hume and Landy sign with the late dealer Karsten Schubert and Davenport with his long-term gallerist Leslie Waddington. A reproduction of Collishaw’s Bullet Hole found its way into Saatchi’s collection and many more artworks by many young artists followed, leading to the infamous 1997 Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, staged by Rosenthall. Finally, at the turn of the millennium Serrota unveiled Tate Modern, the UK’s premier institution dedicated to modern and contemporary art, housed within the renovated Bankside Power Station, a decision in part influenced by Serrota’s lingering affection for the aesthetic and ethos of those early artist-led warehouse exhibitions.
In the intervening three decades since Freeze, the proliferation, popularity and importance of the artist-led space has waxed and waned, but a quick glance at the list of spaces invited to contribute to Paradise Row’s current City Entwined survey exhibition perhaps suggest we are experiencing another surge. Of the eighteen exhibiting, around half are artist-led, including springseason, Kupfer, Filet, Ruby Cruel, San Mei Gallery and Collective Ending (our own predominantly artist-led, entirely collectively run studio and gallery complex, currently comprised of nine artists alongside myself and two other curators/writers).
Additionally, what with the 2008 financial crash, the austerity measures put in place by David Cameron’s Conservative government, the resultant recession and 2016 EU referendum, and all the above now compounded by the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, there are evidently alarming echoes of the economic environment and political position that contributed to the culture of the artist-led in the late 80s and early 90s. One distinguishable difference in the capital's cultural climate thirty-four years on from Freeze, however, is the ongoing and seemingly exponential expansion of the London art scene and the art market as a whole. When once the number of commercial galleries in London could be counted on one hand, now they number into triple figures and populate the length and breadth of the city. And while the first evening sale dedicated to contemporary only took place at Sotheby’s in the late 90s, now such auctions make up the majority of each houses’ marquee sale seasons, where current trends demonstrate a particular penchant for paintings by younger and younger artists. Despite this growth in both scale and sales, being an artist has never before been the ambition of so many, as each year a fresh crop of both BA and MA graduates eagerly enter a sadly overcrowded and competitive scene. So while Hirst and his cohort were eager to self-organise exhibitions due to the sheer scarcity of existing opportunities, nowadays artists in part self-initiate due to a pressure to stand out and or be seen at all.
At Collective Ending, for example, we aim to support our extended network of emerging and early-career artists by providing much-needed opportunities to exhibit, explore and develop within ambitious and experimental settings outside of the overtly commercial gallery system. Collective Ending was initially conceived and coined during ABSINTHE, a trilogy of artist-led exhibitions curated by City Entwined artist Billy Fraser alongside Charlie Mills and James Capper, hosted inside The Spit and Sawdust pub just off Old Kent Road. Each ABSINTHE iteration saw twenty-seven artists traversing many different disciplines exhibit through the historic public house, and included an accompanying live event programme and publication series. When the final exhibition coincidentally coincided with the closure of studio provider V22’s South Bermondsey location, leaving many of our peers high and dry, we were able to secure the lease on a dilapidated warehouse in Deptford with hopes to create a unique space within which they could continue to make artwork and exhibit. Following a prolonged period of renovation reminiscent of the aforementioned Freeze refit, right down to the pigeon excrement, we now provide permanent studio space for nine artists and host a year-round programme of exhibitions and events, all within an extended community of independent galleries and projects spaces - such as City Enwined’s indigo+madder - located in Lewisham, London’s Borough of Culture for 2022
Further afield, Kupfer in Hackney similarly offers studios alongside their project space’s impressive exhibition programme, all under the watchful eye of City Entwined exhibiting artist Penelope Kupfer. Nearby, springseason, set up by artists Nathaniel Faulkner and Gillies Adamson Semple, is nestled under the arches of London’s Overground rail system, where it hosts intermittent events and experimental happenings alongside regular exhibitions. French Riviera, itself existing as a collaboration between artists Samuel Levack and Jennifer Lewandowski, has for over a decade propped up the east London artistic community and supported artists currently without gallery representation. South of the river, San Mei Gallery in Stockwell, directed by recent Slade School of Fine Art graduate Eleanor Wang and her siblings, regularly runs open calls for exhibitions or artist residencies that have a focus on research-led, educational and collaborative exchange. TACO!, the catchy acronym for the Thamesmead Arts and Culture Office, is run by a revolving group of artists and producers, and the organisation now boasts both a bookshop and radio broadcast studio as well as their gallery space. Finally, although not artist-led, an honorary mention should be given to Freddie Powell’s Ginny on Frederick, which currently operates out of an old sandwich shop in Farringdon, a sad casualty of the recent pandemic lockdowns and the subsequent rise in working from home. Freddie has long been an expert in the non-traditional exhibition space, with previous Ginny iterations including group show installed along a fence in Museum Gardens (a collaboration with Sinkhole Project) and Lock-up International, a nomadic curatorial project he runs his partner - the artist Lewis Teague Wright - operating out of short rent self-storage units international (a particular favourite of mine given my previous employment in the self-storage industry!).
Therefore, while City Entwined serves as an apt celebration of the capital's independent contemporary art scene at large, it also showcases the ongoing vitality and vibrancy of the artist-led ethos that underpins a large part of this community. At this point, only time will tell what becomes of their many organisers and artists, but if recent history is anything to go by we should all have high hopes.