In Review

Exhibition of the week: British Art Show 9 at Aberdeen Art Gallery

Socially conscious but ‘rarely preachy’, it is as exciting a survey of contemporary art as you’re likely to encounter

If anyone “has a finger on the pulse of contemporary art in Britain”, it’s the curators of the British Art Show, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. Staged in partnership with London’s Hayward Gallery, this touring exhibition takes place in different British cities once every five years with the aim of showcasing “the country’s most exciting artists”.

The latest iteration will travel to four cities – Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Plymouth – offering a slightly different show in each. And if this first segment at Aberdeen Art Gallery is anything to go on, visitors are in for a treat.

Bringing together submissions from 33 artists, from relative unknowns to Turner Prize nominees, it incorporates work made in many different mediums, from Joanna Piotrowska’s unsettling domestic photographs, to the “uproarious, psychedelic drawings” of Glasgow-based Hardeep Pandhal, to Hrair Sarkissian’s creepy 16-minute sound installation, Deathscape, in which we hear, in total darkness, the tap of tools on bones.

The curators have cast their net far and wide, rejecting the London-centric art world to draw on talent from around the country. Socially conscious but “rarely preachy”, it is as exciting a survey of contemporary art as you’re likely to encounter.

The best stuff here is thrilling, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. The painter Michael Armitage provides a “towering” canvas depicting “a giant pink octopus rising from a sea that floods a forest”. It’s a dreamlike work that confirms him as one of the most “ambitious and rewarding artists in Britain”.

Celia Hempton paints “small savage canvases” of herself and friends, one of which has a man assuming “the position of Courbet’s The Origin of the World, his genitals smeared into shape as if by a drunken Frank Auerbach”. It is “raw, existential art”.

Yet all too often, the participants here seem to prioritise signalling their “lightweight” student politics over aesthetic concerns. Kathrin Böhm, for instance, affixes “a typed diatribe about Aberdeen’s relationship with oil” onto one of her drawings, while “research” artist Maeve Brennan displays photos of stolen Ancient Greek vases to examine “the trade in archaeological loot”. If she is saying anything, it isn’t clear. Worse still is Uriel Orlow, whose installation advances the baseless claim that a “natural folk remedy for malaria” derived from African herbs is being “suppressed in the interests of Big Pharma”. All I learnt from this installation “is that artists are not qualified to legislate for humankind”.

Personally, I found the show a wonderfully “immersive” experience, said Scott Begbie in the Aberdeen Press and Journal. With its “stunning”, “weird” and “thought-provoking” pieces, it proves that contemporary art isn’t “elitist or incomprehensible” or “something for other people”.

Joey Holder’s Semelparous is viscerally “unnerving”: a dimly lit room that feels like an underground chamber, with a doomy soundscape and a screen showing footage of “slithering eels”. Further on, Simeon Barclay gives us a “flashing neon reworking of a Rodin sculpture”, while Florence Peake’s disturbing sculpture Crude Care is a “fleshy, organic shrine”. This exhibition provides “something to delight, surprise and even unnerve at almost every turn”. Don’t miss it.

Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen (britishartshow9.co.uk). Until 10 October, then touring

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