Killing Me Softly

Alexis Teplin: It’s My Pleasure To Participate, Bluecoat, until 23rd February 2020, free

I had a review of this all ready to go two weeks ago. Then politics happened.

My original writings hinged on leaving Alexis Teplin’s space in Bluecoat feeling, despite not liking everything or being a fan of the overall aesthetic, as though I’d been calmed and soothed. I have copious notes on colour palette of this exhibition, of the patience it demands and, to an extent, engenders. But I didn’t type this all up because I went with writing about Ben Youdan’s show first. And then politics happened.

I went back to It’s My Pleasure To Participate a few days after December 12th 2019, needing to reassess so many of my thoughts. It’s one thing to find something soothing and comforting when there’s nothing specific which needs soothing. Quite another when you find yourself forced to question your entire understanding of what your country is.

I don’t think I can call this post a review so much as a record of an experience which shows the limits of objectivity. Because my main problem with Alexis Teplin’s work is that it’s not what I wanted. What I wanted to see in that week after the election was work that was as angry and up for a fight as I was. This is not that, and on that second visit I found it almost impossible to read it as anything other than the “anti”.

I’m far from against creating a space for calm. In fact 2019 was the year I finally cracked the habit of daily meditation time, 10-15 minutes every single morning. I am very into creating space in which you don’t have to be “on” all the time, space for reflection. And my favourite work in here by far (on both visits) is her film The Workers, which documents the painting of the murals in Gallery 4 slowly. It’s a work of patience and collaboration which gently sets a standard for a kind of action this show could stand for. But after twice round, I’m not sure I really know what Alexis Teplin’s overall intention with this body of work is. The handout refer to a focus with the discipline of painting, which is surely one of the vaguest notes you could possible give.

Aesthetically, I have issues anyway. At points Teplin’s work feels as much like “decor” as “art” – with vases, tables and walls, the domestic details are continuous. Maybe they’re meant to create a particular environmental impression, but I instead feel like they belong in a lifestyle concept store. And the first time round I felt similarly about the paintings. They remind me of my recollections of home design in the 1990’s, trying to get something “Mediterranean-ish” in your living room with warm colours and sponging effects.

As for her textile hangings, they’re better as creating a background mood than they are as artworks. I actually don’t like them at all at face value – their scrappiness comes across as pointless, messy in an unattractive (but not enough to be intentionally ugly) way. One of the things I do like about the show is how the space is set up with the textile walls, which feels more intimate than Bluecoat sometimes does. But even this seems like an incidental detail in the scheme of things. The sort of detail you note out of the corner of your eye, rather than contemplate and admire head on.

It’s worth saying that I did find myself appraising some of her work differently the second time around. I found I could be kinder to the paintings. Retro invocation of the Costas they may remain, but if you relax into viewing them there could be something in this wish for the sun. But for my personal headspace in these last few weeks, which I have every intention of carrying forward into 2020, this relaxation isn’t enough. Even when I meditate it’s to be able to understand why I’m thinking certain thoughts and what to do about them, rather than surrender to calm. Creating a place to be soothed is categorically not what I’m after.

I’m aware this is supremely objective; hell, I had almost diametrically opposite thoughts about You Feel Me_ at FACT just a few weeks ago. I know that there will be those of you who find something valuable here. You might be in almost the exact same mindset at me, but need something to ease the turmoil; this might be it. And to clarify, I think the world would be much worse off if all art was political. We need art to exist to provide different perspectives – sometimes even to exist for the sake of existing. That’s was why you almost ended up with a very different review.

Usually I think I’m pretty good at being non-judgemental about any exhibition before I enter: curious, but willing to learn. So my experience of visiting and writing about It’s My Pleasure To Present has been most rewarding an an exercise in my own vulnerabilities. It’s been about the baggage we bring to art and how it makes us think. It’s helped me clarify the ideas and actions I’m taking forward (it’s a coincidence that this is into 2020) and where I need to make space for careful thinking. perhaps even about qualities I know I’m missing. But these lessons have come from my aversion to what Teplin offers, thought, rather than being achieved in ways the exhibition intends.

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