J Blackwell at Kate MacGarry

As the climate catastrophe is becoming increasingly publicly known, and evident, it is naive for the art world to turn its back on it, or perhaps worse still, to have artists making weakly linked, superficial works about global warming without considerations for their legacies in the short- and long-term. Kate MacGarry is a small space in Shoreditch with a significant international reputation, and every time I've visited in the past the lasting impression is that the gallery presents neat, clean works with a focus on modernism and symbolism, but this is just anecdotal.

J Blackwell, Opulent Active Net, 2019. Plastic, acrylic, yarn, 152.4cm x 106.7cm.
Photo: Robert Glowacki

'R.O.I/J.O.M.O' is sharing the space with a small selection of works by Susanne Paesler, represented by Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin, as part of the annual Condo London program, which allows galleries from around the world to exhibit in London. More importantly for the likes of me, it gives Londoners the chance to see artists from galleries around the world, from Matthew Brown Gallery in Los Angeles to Koppe Astner in Glasgow. Of course this is a wonderful concept, but from experience it often falls rather flat and is crying out for some kind of theme, to help us understand why the works, and indeed galleries, are here in London, and why they have been picked above some kind of globalised network or nepotism. But alas, it's nice to have a little self-guided tour around central and east London galleries if nothing else.

You have to pass through Paesler's paintings to arrive at J Blackwell's work, and the exhibition in question is museum-quality stunning. Maybe this is something to do with the impact that plastic bags now have, with imagery of marine life getting caught in them penetrating our consciousness through the media. It's necessary but, like everything else, we're almost becoming desensitised by it already. So this begs the question: how can artists interpret the climate crisis effectively?

Installation view: J Blackwell, R.O.I/J.O.M.O, 2020. Kate Macgarry, London, 11 January-8 February
Photo: Robert Glowacki

When the issue at hand directly affects every one of us, from the perspective of the art world it is very much wrestling with accessibility concerns too. As Kate MacGarry is a private commercial gallery, this isn't really the time to have this conversation, but instead we can discuss how easily it might be to understand the artist's work. The mixed media works on the wall are comprised of plastic, acrylic and yarn, the former of which makes it potentially problematic already, given that we're talking about meaningful sustainability, but the aesthetics of plastic bags being joined together and fetishised as an artwork feel not just timely, but as if they could only have been made in 2019. In the recent past, plastic bags were an everyday item, a necessity, however we now know that we can make our mark, however small, by reducing our usage in favour of longer-term solutions. In the future, this artwork will be read differently as the object has been vilified, and will soon be an artefact.

'R.O.I/J.O.M.O' standing for 'Return on Investment / Joy of Missing Out' harks back to the cliché terminology that is thrown around not only in the sphere of the art world, but online too. When there is such a variety of content, recurring jargon not only alienates people but also makes the art world seem like a vapid joke. Language is an interesting concept in thinking about the bigger themes within Blackwell's work, really opening more questions than it closes. How we talk about issues of this unimaginable scale with the sensitivity, gravity and urgency it requires is a challenge, but Blackwell's 'Lank Alert Net' piece in the show creates a simple visual code, with its background of identical plastic bags with a red 'X' splattered across; its red hue signifies danger but is visually similar to blood in a horror film. At a time where our consciousness must shift towards reusing and relying on more sustainable materials to sustain ourselves and the planet simultaneously, the hybridity of matter in Blackwell's work is closely aligned to this ethos, all the while producing aesthetics that are so arresting that they force us to stop and contemplate.

J Blackwell, Neveruses (Corey Acres), 2019. Plastic, wool, silk, paper, oil paint, steel, wood, 63.5cm x 45.7cm x 7.6cm

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