Replicants, dark depths and an eroded Venus
Before, Now …and After – a show in Berlin and in London

Andrea Philppi
Sunday, December 12 2000

A strange aphrodite welcomes us at the entry. Her flesh coloured robe opens spaces we never would have dreamed of. In the next moment a bluish wall of fog reaches out a hand and pulls us into its depths. Nailed on the wall, alien looking beings with blurred faces and black expressionless eyes watch the scenery. But don’t be wrong! What you see through these big showcases on Almstadtstrasse 7 (Mitte) is not a bizarre dream, it is artistic reality.

With Before, Now …and After the Greek architect and curator Angela Diamandidou shows the British artists Frances Aviva Blane, Sheila Gaffney and Helen Sear in London and Berlin at the same time. No clones. Geographically, the two unusual locations are situated at the ‘east end’ of the city, but that is all they do have in common. Whereas in London the object of art merges with the history of an old brick building, the cool atmosphere of the ‘space’ in Almstadtstrasse 7 brings out a new beauty. You can be sure that the effect will be completely different. This depends not exclusively on the varying art pieces.

The three lively art ladies work with different medias – painting, sculpture and photography. The works don’t kill each other, they complement themselves reciprocally. The big abstract paintings of Frances Aviva Blane show kind of architectural landscapes of colour whose layers lead into revealing depths. Sheila Gaffney strengthens in her pinkish wax sculptures the gaze on the final detail, the arm lying gracefully on the wax plinth looks from a distance like and rotting and lost limb of a statue. Taking a closer look on will discover delicate flower ornaments on the skin like structure. Twice…Once titles the black and white portrait made by Helen Sear. The artist overlaps two negatives of the same photography to create with great technical skill and perseverance the intangible image of her ‘replicants’ (each portrait has its own code).
In this non-time she meets in the end Frances and Sheila. With big dark eyes they look at the one contemplating their art.

Before the window to London will open, Angela Diamandidou offers you a small look to what happens on the other side of the channel.

Before, Now…and After
Must – see event in time and space
Wednesday, December 20 2000

This amazing exhibition has been taking pace simultaneously in London and Berlin. Ignored by Time Out and many art mags, it is your responsibility to yourself not to miss it. The London part of Before, Now…and After is unique not only because of the singular talents which have been brought together by the architect and curator Angela Diamandidou, (British women artists Frances Aviva Blane, Sheila Gaffney and Helen Sear), but because of the location itself and the manipulation of the space; or rather, the non-manipulation of the space. And so, as you accede through the passage at 148 St John St to a vast building site, and find the red brick Clock House, built in 1893, which is one of the last two remaining buildings of the Cannon Brewery complex. You find yourself in an immediately charged, problematic and evocative moment in the dialogue between past and present, destruction and reconstruction, progress and preservation. From inside the building, the viewer is able to contemplate in a space outside time, while huge excavators dig up the earth in the vast yard, creating holes of negative space and piles of matter which excite formalist as well industrial–nostalgic sensitivities alike. But the real archaeology, the real excavation, takes place inside the building, in a far more subtle and surprising way, rather taking the form of an exploration.

Stripped of its wall paint, varnish and wallpaper, what was originally a Victorian building with gilt and crested Walter – Scott aspirations (the pastral, the spiritual legitimisation of the manufacturing Mr Gradgrinds of the Nineteenth Century) has become a pure and haunting space, both testimony and negation of its functional past. A sanctuary for the works on display? Nothing so banal. In fact, Angela Diamandidou has insisted with the artists on a high degree of interaction with the site. Nothing new so far. After all, London is rife with exhortations to enjoy the spirit of the place. The development of the ‘local’, as alter ego and conscience of glogalisation, is very much in the spirit of the times. What is unique about Before, Now…and After is that this interaction occurs in a poetic, and not a didactic way. And the artists have responded magnificently, putting aside the worry that the layered beauty of stripped walls with their unconsciously Mantegna tints, of earth colours, light ochre, faded emerald and pink, might detract attentions from the pieces. This generosity has paid off creating a marvellous casuality in the case of Frances Aviva Blane’s abstracts, which are both informal and structured, (though one wall had to be painted white in order to preserve the power one canvas), forcing to creatively think around problems of placing for her pieces. Helen Sear was actually stimulated to produce new work; her highly sensual I wanted to believe with my eyes, a large computer-manipulated inkject picture of a unicorn, was toned to the colours of the walls, while her striking piece Husbandry takes the last remaining detail of old wallpaper from the building, magnifies it, and re-positions the image on the very walls it used to inconspicuously cover, assuming new poetic, ironic and political valences (Husbandry portrays the rural idyll of a woman feeding some oxen with a bucket).

Though highly atmospheric, the exhibition is not choreographed. Nothing is taken away from the power of the pieces: if anything, the aesthetic power of the pieces somewhat upstages meaning, title and punch line, the cavalry of the contemporary British art scene…but only temporarily. This is an exhibition which requires time, and rewards those who will spend time looking at it. The feminist and mnemonic valences of Sheila Gaffney’s extraordinary wax sculptures becomes clear as an afterthought, after you have recovered from the archaic impact of her totem-like figure and from her overpowering wall of hands. But who said that things have to be quick? It’s taken over a century to get the the Cannon Brewery in this shape, and the work of Angela Diamandidou.
Before, now....and after
make Issue 91