Signs of the times

Gillian Wearing goes dancing in a shopping centre and Julie Roberts paints childhood death. Susanna Beaumont talks to two of Britain’s leading contemporary artists about public and private landscapes.

If the ultimate accolade in this ad-dominated age is when a Levi‘s poster campaign parodies your art. then Gillian Wearing has reason to be proud. Call it capturing the spirit of the age or a knack for speaking to high street shoppers. Wearing‘s Signs series may have inspired the Levi‘s ‘l)ockers' ad. Or perhaps it's just that great artists and ad companies think alike.

Wearing‘s Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say III“! Not Signs That Say What Someone Else il’ants You To Say seen at Edinburgh‘s Collective Gallery as part of the I996 British Art Show - saw her taking to the streets of London. stopping passers- by and asking them to write what they wanted to say on a card. She then photographed the writer with the results. One rather tame-looking guy wrote ‘Cut Off The Head And The Body Will Die'; while a smart- suited chap cut to the core with ‘l‘m Desperate‘. Wearing reckons Levi‘s may have adopted her sign tactics for their ads.

Debatable perhaps. but the fact is that Wearing is going places. When last year’s all-male Turner Prize shortlist was released and there was dissent in the art ranks about the omission of women. Wearing’s name was among those given as evidence of oversight. After the British Art Show. she formed part of the Brit i’ack brigade who showed in Minneapolis in the highly-hyped Brilliantl. And her fame extends

Couch death: Julle Robert’s teenage Suicide

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Cowboy iunkles: Gillian Wearing’s installation featuring sell-styled cowboys from South london

beyond arty confines. Cool style mag Dazed and Confused recently billed her as ‘The Artist To Watch.‘ Now her work is on show in a group touring exhibition. Imagined Communities at Glasgow‘s Gallery Of Modern Art.

Wearing‘s art is upfront and frequently confrontational. She enjoys getting inside people's heads. getting a reaction, making public what’s private. But the resulting video works and photographs are far from gratuitous or groaning under the weight of shock tactics. She is no exhibitionist but often makes a public show of herself. A few years back. inspired by the sight of a woman dancing manically and solo in a non-dancing situation 'l‘ve always liked seeing people do

extreme acts in daylight' Wearing went down to a

London shopping centre and did likewise withjust a camcorder for company and Nirvana‘s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit' and Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive' playing out in her head.

Inspired by a woman dancing manically in

a non-dancing situation, Gillian Wearing

went to a London shopping centre and did

likewise. Passers-by hardly gave a second glance - British reserve, she believes.

‘i‘ve always wanted to do something like that. an action for pleasure.‘ says Wearing of Dancing In Peek/tam.

Passers-by hardly gave a second glance British reserve. believes Wearing. ‘lt sounds a cliche’. but it‘s quite scary that you can do something and get away with it.‘ she says.

Like Wearing. Julie Roberts is a thirtysornething artist who featured in the British Art Show. but her work mines a very different terrain. Recently back from a stay at the Britain School in Rome courtesy of the Scottish Arts Council. Roberts uses paint as her

medium. which these days can get bad press as the dull relation of video and installation art. At Glasgow School of Art. peers such as Douglas Gordon and Christine Borland were making things. while Roberts was. as she puts it. ‘the old-fashioned one painting.‘

That said. Roberts' paintings are far from old hat. Her large canvasses are taut. tense and frequently veer towards the faintly troubling. in the British Art Show she showed a women‘s straitjacket floating in splendid isolation against a background ofernerald green.

Since the early 90s. Roberts has pursued this approach of taking an object —- a piece of furniture, an article of clothing and reproducing it meticulously on to a sea of often vibrant and textured colour. The result is an object in limbo. stripped bare of its usual setting. But what wrests her work from being pleasing renditions. is a sense of eavesdropping on the set of some psychological drama. The players may have left her paintings are often unpeopled but a disarming narrative hangs heavy in the air.

Even where there are figures. there is no life. In Crime Q/‘Passion. a young girl lies slumped under a table. In Teenager Suicide. a girl with a doll at her side and a black scarf over her head lies dead on a couch. Circumstances are unknown but the mind races for clues - an explanation for the domestic scene. Roberts has an interest in the family ‘the powerhouse of the family’ -— and the writings of family-life analyst Sigmund Freud. ‘He signifies so much: the family, society and the whole parenting thing.‘ says Roberts. who has painted Freud’s couch and desk. ‘I just thought it very interesting. with all the phallic-shaped objects on it.‘ she says of the desk. ‘lt’s very sexualised.‘

Yet while excavating an intense domestic landscape. Roberts believes in the need to please the eye. ‘You've got to be able to seduce in a painting.’ she argues. The art of seduction lives on.

Imagined Communities. Gillian Wearing. Gallery Of Modern Art. Glasgow until Sun 16 Feb: Julie Roberts. Talbot Rice Gallery. Edinburgh until Sat 8 Feb.

The List l0-23 Jan I997 87