Approaching Castor Projects along the overground arches in Deptford, the gallery might easily appear closed at first sight. Its shutters, usually open to reveal the current exhibition through a set of large front windows, are rolled down, concealing the inside and already setting the tone for the unique creative experiment ‘Habitual’ presents to its visitors.
Entering the gallery through the small front door, the audience is directed towards the exhibition through a segue into a seemingly empty, light grey space with a lonesome bench and a large wooden structure in the corner. At this point there is still no sign of any art in an exhibition of 19 artists. However, instead of a conventional commercial group exhibition, ‘Habitual’ unfolds within the theatrical setting of a compulsive collector’s storage solution. The exhibition text written by David Northedge is a humorous inner monologue of said collector (rich with tongue-in-cheek puns such as “I’d simply buy-curious”). It’s a manic confessional about his or her obsessive tendencies, comparing art collecting to a kind of infectious disease or addiction, while simultaneously serving as a clever and suggestive introduction of the specific works of art in the exhibition.
The allegory of a Brechtian play seems accurate to describe the various layers of ‘Habitual’ insofar as its experimentation with breaking through the art world’s Fourth Wall, as well as changing the pace and choreography of the exhibition. The play commences as a member of the gallery staff invites the viewer to sit on the bench or simply watch on as they step onto the wooden structure (the ‘stage’) and start pulling out its racks one-by-one, revealing the 5 individually curated storage surfaces. Each of these chapters tells a different story, mixing gallery and non-represented artists. Some of my personal highlights include Grace Woodcock’s bodily sculptural piece ‘Pore-Tal’ (2020) evoking futuristic Spacewear in the shape of a soft inner ear. It invites the visitor’s touch both through its intimate materiality and its potential functionality, which is an overarching feature of Woodcock’s practice, balancing between practical design and decorative art. Rafal Zajko’s compact jesmonite sculptures, ‘Otwarcie’ (2020), ‘Vent I’ (2019) and ‘Rebuke’ (2020) are brilliant punchlines with their retro-tech aesthetics, resembling a bird’s-eye view of Soviet buildings or a flattened Gameboy surface. Their blockiness, both robust and somewhat endearing, is a nice contrast to other more ornamental artworks. A few more standouts are the dynamic and rich large oil painting ‘Asymptote’ (2020) by Ben Jamie and two separate smaller canvases, ‘On the Dorpsstraat’ (2020) and ‘On the Eikenlaan’ (2020) by Stevie Dix featuring high-heeled boots, which also speak to the fetishistic element of the exhibition’s metanarrative.
Not only does ‘Habitual’s framework challenge visitor expectations and add another performative dimension to the experience of visiting an art gallery, the intervention also happens on a temporal level. The hang is quasi Salon-style on each board, being antithetical to the display favoured by most commercial exhibitions with works spread out on a neat gallery wall. However, given the imminently theatrical context within which the viewer’s experience emerges, the works are in fact met with a more engaged way of looking that is encouraged by tweaking the tempo. Through each exhibition surface being revealed individually, the exhibition slows down the pace and limits the scope of the viewer’s gaze instead of letting us have it all at once.
In general, group exhibitions can be tricky to truly bring together under a common narrative instead of them being held together by a make-shift concept. The viewer’s attention might linger on some works but can fall into the passive habit of simply scanning over the walls, only engaging with the art in a flat, one-dimensional manner. ’Habitual’ tricks this habit into being more active through its inventive setting. And it takes it all the way – I spoke to Director Andy Wicks about his choice of leaving the entire gallery empty apart from the bench and the central storage structure. He said he in fact considered showing some sculptural work in the space at first, but eventually came to the conclusion that the mise-en-scene and concept would be served better by limiting visual access to the works to only one certain physical and temporal space, keeping them otherwise hidden from view.
These perhaps seemingly compromising, considerate decisions are what in fact make ‘Habitual’ a real experimental triumph. The exhibition manages to reach through the Fourth Wall of the art world in an entertaining and original way that subtly pokes fun at its absurdity, fetishisms and performativity. All the while it still remains graceful, foregrounds the integrity of featured artworks and doesn’t lose this to its elaborate concept. Habitual - Time Out Review by Chris Waywell In the spirit of new year, new you, Deptford’s Castor has done some spring cleaning, built a big plywood box and stuck a load of art in it. It’s like a giant plan chest tipped on its side. You pull out the drawers to display the works, a few at a time.
It’s a canny device, swerving the conventional, tired group show, where whoever shouts the loudest controls the room, and where you mentally calculate how much time you need to spend with any artist who isn’t your mate. It also makes you interact with the pieces in unusual, role-playing ways. If you’re the one pulling out the drawers, you’re put into the role of curator, doing the big reveal. If you’re sitting on the bench out front, you’re the critic or the collector. It’s like KidZania. For art.
Like any bunch of stuff you shove in a drawer, some of the pieces fare better than others. So Grace Woodcock’s big earmuff-headphoney things look great against all the industrial-chic ply, while an intense, small, dark painting by Gareth Cadwallader gets a bit lost. But the best panels are really good. Nick Paton’s ceramic plaques with their odd protrusions, Amanda Moström’s spray-painted pants and Rafal Zajko’s cast of a vaguely medical-looking vent all cluster around Sara Anstis’s eccentric painting ‘Beets’ (it does have some beets in it), to everyone’s mutual benefit.
Best of all, though, it’s fun, and a lot of the work is fun too. Because there’s an activity involved in seeing the art, it loses its chilly gallery mystique. It’s just a bunch of stuff, after all. Leaf through it. Maybe there’s something you fancy.