Modern Art Oxford’s exhibition of work by Stuart Brisley proves a challenging proposition, as Sarah Mayhew Craddock discovers

The saying goes that if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick – the artist Stuart Brisley, currently exhibiting at Modern Art Oxford, has been elbow deep for years.

Widely regarded as a key figure of British performance art, Brisley is best known for work in the 1970s and 80s that redefined what this is.

Despite now being a grandfather of his oeuvre, Brisley’s work remains incredibly current.

As an art student I thought of Brisley as being the Vivienne Westwood or Sid Vicious of his art form – highly charged, highly opinionated, highly political, and highly British. A man of the people, and a force to be reckoned with.

“All work needs content,” said Brisley. “without content there is no work”. It’s quite a statement, but one I’m inclined to agree with. I like a person that puts their neck on the line, their money where their mouth is, and this is precisely what Brisley has been doing for the last 60 years.

The exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, State of Denmark, presents a survey of Brisley’s innovative and diverse works spanning this seminal artist’s career taking in performance, painting, photography, sculpture, video and drawing.

Aesthetically the exhibition appears bold yet stark.

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Before The Mast

There’s a lot to take in, but as a viewer you’re left to figure it out on your own, which is a little unnerving, and I imagine that the artist and the curator engineered it that way. It’s a complex show; Brisley is commenting on, and inviting you the viewer to consider, some complex subjects, past and present.

I was surprised to find that all of Brisley’s work in this exhibition feels underpinned by a tremendous physicality. Brisley has used his own body as a tool, has worked with other ordinary people/bodies to create work, and continues to create work on a physically challenging scale. His work and this exhibition contains the same surge of energy as resonates in Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave, only Brisley’s work challenges in quite a different way.

Just as Shakespeare remains relevant and timeless, so does Stuart Brisley’s work, and so does the quote from Hamlet that this exhibition takes its name from: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ The exhibition opens in the Upper Gallery where visitors are greeted with the jarring crown of thorns that is Brisley’s iconic sculpture, Hille Fellowship. It takes a certain kind of person to engage with sectors outside of one’s own. Imagine then, an artist going to set up shop as an artist in residence (of sorts) in a furniture factory in Suffolk in 1970.

This kind of an arrangement is still relatively rare today, and was virtually unheard of in the 1970s.

However, the ‘perfect circle’, comprising 212 interlocking chair frames, that is Hille Fellowship was created in response to Brisley’s time in the Hille International Ltd furniture factory where Brisley set about developing improved communication channels between workers and managers through a series of actions.

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This work is presented alongside a new, fractured, installation entitled State of Denmark (2014). Frequent visitors to Modern Art Oxford may notice that that the pulpit-esque balcony that stands high over the Upper Gallery is cloaked in a blue rectangular canvas of flag-like proportions that forms part of State of Denmark.

Suspended from the ceiling and hanging heavy above a wooden structure beneath it is a large crown.

The wooden structure below has items of clothing stuffed underneath a partially exposed platform revealing an angular grid and a closed invitation.

A recent-looking pencil drawing of Prince George peaks out between missing panes or supports that visitors are invited to leave their mark on.

Refreshingly, where order and figureheads are concerned, there is no censorship, no etiquette to be observed: power and the decision making process is placed in the hands of the common man. Brisley is offering visitors the opportunity to leave their mark on his work, to use their voice, and in doing so he invites people to respond to the precariousness of seemingly permanent institutions like the monarchy.

Can it be coincidence that State of Denmark opened on the day of the Scottish referendum and that the hue of the brazen blue he uses in this installation is such a close match to Celtic blue? I suspect not, but more likely it is a tool with which to heighten the viewers’ sense of self.

Contrastingly, the act of painting is explored in the Piper Gallery with works that are all carefully composed yet executed in starkly different ways.

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The Chair

In 1996, just as the world was getting to grips with the extent of the damage that mankind had done to it and is capable of doing to it, Brisley initiated the self-institution Museum of Ordure.

This series of works evokes an ongoing and increasingly important concern in Brisley’s work, the tussle with societal and cultural detritus: rubbish, waste, faeces – real, metaphorical, and imagined – and its impact on the concept of the public sphere and civil society.

The work in this room is aggressive, it’s violent, it’s incredibly ugly, and sadly it’s art imitating life.

When I imagine a generalised view of Oxford I imagine institutionalised hoop jumping, polite conversation and people toeing the line.

The State of Denmark exhibition is everything but that. It presents dangerous ground to step on, literally and metaphorically. It’s a bitter sweet, highly intelligent, anarchistic exhibition that addresses the autonomy of the individual and fundamental notions of power, authority and freedom.

Stuart Brisley’s State of Denmark continues until November 16 at Modern Art Oxford, Pembroke Street, Oxford. On November 6, at 7pm, Stuart Brisley is joined by Catherine Wood, Curator of Contemporary Art and Performance at Tate Modern, to discuss his exhibition. 

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