Michael Dean – Jungle is Massive – Herald St Gallery, Bethnal Green, East London – Unless you’ve been paying close attention to their mailouts you never quite know if there’s anything happening or not at Herald St, they don’t do signs or anything like that, unless you already know they’re hiding there you’d have no idea that there is actually a gallery hidden behind that unremarkable unmarked garage door of that really rather unengaging building on the corner. There almost always is a exhibition happen but you are left with what seems like forever waiting for someone to get up and come answer the door, it is rather intimidating, it probably is only twenty seconds but you do feel like you’ve interrupted something and yes I have gone on about this before, the unwelcoming unfriendly attitude of art is something that does annoy, that can enrage, perplex, frustrate – you’d almost think they don’t want us in their galleries. Herald St are not the only one guilty of this but that wait for the door to be answered and the not knowing if it will be and is anything actually on or is it closed today and what am I interrupting and enough already, be grateful they put on shows people like us, the great unwashed general public can just walk into free of charge. Herald St, once you’ve mustered up the courage to ring the bell (assuming you know that is the bell and there is an actual gallery somewhere in there) is almost always a rewarding space, the art they choose to show is almost always good and this latest show, Jungle is Massive, Michael Dean’s fifth solo exhibition with the gallery is no exception.
“Dean has transformed the gallery’s East London premises into an enwildened enclosure, amok with pandas, trees, and leaves composed of concrete, rebar, and books soaked in green dye. On entering the space the viewer is met with silent sculptures of a monochrome chalky and calciferous texture, and walking around them reveals a flattened surface loudly scrawled in Dean’s idiosyncratic writing. This new body of work manifests the artist’s ongoing ardour for language, with a renewed interest in nature as an increasing global concern”. Not sure if Michael Dean has actually “transformed” the space. not sure if the gallery is “amok”, what he has done here is placed a number of close-to-each-other exciting pieces within the formal art space, he’s filled the floor (and not too much in terms of the walls) with his concrete jungle. There’s a lot in here, it is very much about placing pieces rather than transforming the space and yes, it is a busy show, there is a lot here to walk around, to weave around, to look through, to look beyond, to follow the sight lines from one piece to another – no transformation but it is exciting, it is immediately engaging, demand of you the viewer in the best of ways.
“At the root of Dean’s work is text. Jungle is Massive originates from an experimentation with the ‘natural semiotics’ of animal markings, transfiguring these into letters and words. Spelt out in coloured concrete poured from a broken bottle, the sculptures read SLOW GUNS / LIES, HAPPY END, GOOD LIES GOOD BYES BAD LIES BAD BYES, LOVED NOW THEN / HATE – the letters imitate patchy fur and leafy shoots layered upon each other, lying organically rather than linearly in place. Referencing Roland Barthes’ essay ‘From Work to Text’ (1977), Dean invites viewers to approach his work as Barthes does his notion of Text – with intention, to interact and play with their reading, as one would play an instrument. In this vein, the exhibition will be accompanied by Bear Threads in Ffffucksake Major, a string quartet in four parts orchestrated by the artist. This ephemeral performance introduces a new sensation to the sculptures, as violins, a viola, and a cello are rubbed against their surfaces to excavate sound, resulting in the destruction of the instruments”.
It feels exciting, those concrete textures, the scale, the edges, the decay, the space between pieces and the conversations they have with each other, the words that take a little time to reveal their connections, and yes, of course seeing these pieces placed in a forma l way in a very formal (dare we say establishment) gallery does change the way you look at them. We could very easily be underneath a brutalist flyover in Hackney Wick (although the other jungle creatures would have left their own (sweet toof) marks within days of these peices being placed. And yes, even if you haven’t read the invite before hand, you do instinctively play with the text, you do want to sit between the pieces and see what they’re saying, you do want to read the flow – and you do really want to touch them, concrete is so tactile. There’s no sound today, no music, I guess that happened on the opening night, missed the memo on that one, damn (all those hundreds of gallery e.mails). Today is the (glorious) silence of an empty gallery, just the two of us and the one other person checking the show out (we did find someone in the street trying to find the space as we were leaving, good job we were there, wonder how many people just give up and assume they must have got it wrong?)
This is an excellent show, a right-here-right-now kind of exhibition, an experience that does push buttons, all the right buttons. Actually this is a rather beautiful show but then concrete is rather beautiful, so is decay and yes, there are leaves growing on that decay, something close to my artistic heart – it is an engaging show that does invite you to interact, to explore, it does feel like a concrete jungle, it does demand you pay proper attention rather than politely walk around – and we do all love these things, the overgrown abandon factory, the decaying train yard, the streets and spaces that nature inevitably reclaims, the overgrown cemetery, we do all love a concrete jungle don’t we?
“Dean grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne, in England’s industrial north. His urban upbringing deeply informs his work, as evidenced in his use of concrete, caution tape, coke cans, and other relics of the street. Nature may at first seem opposite to these materials, yet it is a theme the artist has returned to throughout his career, most recently in his 2021 exhibition in Seoul, Garden of Delete. Dean’s Ilford studio opens onto a large back garden in which sculptures and fragments rest among weeds and wildflowers, gently surrendering to the untamed vegetation and forming manmade (and man-touched) geological layers. Similarly, the surfaces of the concrete sculptures in the present exhibition evoke calcium deposits or moraines, as if they have fallen off a cliff-face. Dean values nature for its ‘phenomenological fatherless’ – its place at the origin of all things, and its ‘hyper- author’ potential for growth in every direction. While he ascribes resilience and power to his subject, the artist also draws attention to its imminent danger and looming disappearance. In discussing his latest output, Dean quotes a colleague who recently told him: ‘If your work doesn’t have reference to global warming, then it’s science fiction.’
Hey look, this is pushing so many of my personal artistic buttons,, I’m an easy win-over here, I love layers and leaf growth and concrete and the marks of an urban jungle and the places the pigeons live in, of course I love these layers of Michael Dean, I leave lots of art out on the streets for layers to just grow over the marks I make – this really is my kind of art gallery experience! This really is a genuinely exciting snow (and yes I admit to a bit of artistic jealousy), this is a powerful show, a standout show (and we go to a lot of shows), as set of important statements or questions or maybe even confrontations? There’s a genuine thrill here with the paw prints and the very obvious recycling symbols, those ubiquitous symbols,. is that a heart? A call from the artist to ‘recycle love’ (as Émilie Streiff points out in the excellent text that accompanies the exhibition points out).
I didn’t know this show was happening, I just happened to be passing and I just happen to know the gallery that’s named after the street you find it on is hiding there in Bethnal Green. Michael Dean hasn’t quite ” transformed the gallery’s East London premises into an enwildened enclosure” but he has placed a number of exciting pieces within the space, the conversations that are going on in here are genuinely exciting, the engagement between the pieces, the conversations with the viewer, the questions thrown out, the shapes, the marks the textures, the edges, the leaves, the words, this is a genuinely exciting show, you might say a vital one… Art excites, especially when it tries to engage like this… (sw)
Herald St Gallery, 2 Herald St, Bethnal Green, London, E2 6JT. The Michael Dean show runs until 2nd July 2022. The gallert is open 11am until 6pm Tuesday until Saturday. There really is no idication that there is a gallery there, the space is at the end of the street, on the corner, there’s a roll down garage door, and a unassuming small door t t he right of it, you right bell and wait (and to be fair, they do greet you in a polite enough way and then just leave you in peace to get on with it). The space is always rewarding..
As awlays do click on an image to enlarge or to run the slide show